Like some pandemic infectious diseases, or the infestation of mutant cockroaches, California gangs are making your jurisdiction their new home.
For decades, California has been a popular choice for the migration of citizens attracted to the state's climate, beaches, forests, jobs, and communities. Today, citizens are leaving California in huge numbers. Like many other segments of the population, gang members have joined the flood of fleeing Californians. What are the signs of this exported influence, and does it affect your local "youths in crisis"?
Recognize the Symptoms
Southern California gangs have used numerous names and symbols to identify themselves since the early 1900s. The letters "LA"—often with the horizontal leg of the letter "L" forming the cross bar of the letter "A"—were early symbols used in tattoos. Today this monogram is used as the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team logo, which along with the team color blue has become a common identification for Southern California gangs. If you don't work or live in the Los Angeles area and you continually see young people sporting the Dodgers "LA" logo on their clothing, cars, tattoos, and graffiti, it's a safe bet that you're not dealing with baseball fans.
In the 1930s, the government built several low cost housing projects in East Los Angeles. Early residents of these projects called them "maravillosa" (Spanish for marvelous). Shortly thereafter, a gang sprang up calling itself the "Maravilla" gang. The gang grew and split up into several gangs mostly named after the streets in the Maravilla area: Kern, Lopez, Rock, Ford, Marianna, Arizona, and Lote. Today more than 20 gangs are part of the Maravilla group. These gangs were often deadly rivals on the street, but in custody they put aside these differences and united as an informal Maravilla coalition. The letter "M" and the number "13" (for the thirteenth letter of the alphabet) became the symbols identified with Maravilla.
In 1956, this informal coalition was exploited by the early founders of the Mexican Mafia to establish the Mexican Mafia prison gang. Eventually, the symbols "M" and "13" came to be associated with the Mexican Mafia and all of the Hispanic Southern California gangs that supported it, whether they were associated with Maravilla or not. These gang members also use Los Angeles telephone area codes, such as 213, 310, 562, 626, and 818. When you see the use of these symbols in graffiti and tattoos, you know that the California gangs are present in your area.
Sur, Sureños, and the South Side
In the early 1990s Southern California gangs began using "sur" (Spanish for "south") and the acronym "SUR" for "Southern United Raza" outside of the prison system. These southerners called themselves Sureños, or the South Siders. This designation means more than just a reference to a geographic location.
The delineation between north and south can be compared to the same designations used during the American Civil War. When Hispanic gang members claim to be "Sureños," they mean more than just that they come from Southern California. Like the southern rebels of the Civil War, they are saying that they are soldiers who are willing to die for the Mexican Mafia prison gang and the Sureño alliance. The use of SUR, Sureño, and South Siders all represent this commitment.
Norte, Norteños, and the Nuestra Familia
Although less prolific than their Southern California counterparts, the street gangs from Northern California associate with and serve as soldiers for the Nuestra Familia prison gang. Norteños identify themselves with the San Francisco Giants baseball logo and the color red. They also use the letter "N" and the number "14" (for the 14th letter of the alphabet). Rivals within the California prison system, Norteños and Sureños sometimes unite outside of California as "Califas" when they become active in other states.
California Crips and Bloods
The great Crip and Blood migration from California occurred in the mid 1980s along with the crack cocaine epidemic. Both gangs are now well established in most major cities across the United States. In gang training 101 you learned that the Bloods or Piru identify with the term Brother, or Damu (Swahili for Blood), and the color red. The Crips use the term Cuz (for Cousin) and identify with the color blue. But these California rivals also sometimes unite outside of California as the "21."
California Gangs Migrating from Mexico and Central America
The three largest gangs from Los Angeles—Florence 13, 18th Street, and Mara Salvatrucha—are composed primarily of illegal aliens. One method used against these gangs has been deportation. As a result, these L.A. gangs have infected other countries with the Sureño cancer and non-California Sureños continue to enter other states.
Southern California gang members and their illegal immigrant associates often unite under the "Sureño" umbrella and use identifiers like South Side, SUR 13, or Sureños. Sometimes these Sureños recruit or convert local gang members to the Sureño cause and may invent a name like South Side Boyz.
Common North, South, and Califas Identifiers
To further confuse the issue, Sureños and Norteños also use "South Pole," "North Pole," and "So Cal" clothing as identifiers. Football jerseys with the numbers 13, 18 (18th street), or 14 are very popular, and the Raiders football team logo and clothing is used by both gangs. The number 12 (12th letter of the alphabet; L for Loco or Lowrider) are used by gang members loyal to either the North or the South.
When you see graffiti proclaiming "Norte 14," "Califas," "South Side," or "SUR 13," you may have: (1) a coalition of different California gang members identifying under the mutual Sureño or Norteño umbrella, (2) a group of local gang members who have modeled themselves after a California gang and are utilizing the Sureño or Norteño codes of conduct, or (3) a group of illegal aliens from central America who have brought a secondhand version of the Sureño life style to your city.
In Arizona, I have noticed that prosecutors are timid about filing gang allegations against these hodge-podge umbrella gang designations. These gang identifiers are important distinctions when prosecuting gang members or adding gang enhancements, so judges, prosecutors, and police must all be educated about these identifiers. This can easily be done by training and qualifying local gang experts in the courtroom.
Whether it is a homegrown imitation, an L.A. coalition working under an umbrella, or illegal immigrants claiming Norteño or Sureño membership, they continue to fit the basic definition of a gang: a group of three or more persons with a common name or symbol who have a pattern of committing criminal acts for the benefit of the gang. The legal definition of a gang used in your state or city is critical, so check it out.
Go get 'em, but be safe!