Two expressions of Sureño gang allegience include the Aztec symbol for 13 (left) and the Nahuatl word "kanpol." Photo: Rich Valdemar
Threats posed by Latino Sureños may be one of the most misunderstood and underestimated gang problems in this country.
"Sureños are focused on a complete ideology and belief in their gang, and they display a dedication and loyalty that surpasses that of any gang I've ever dealt with," Chuck Schoville of the Rocky Mountain Information Network (RMIN) writes in the report "Sureños 2008."
The confusion about Sureños may stem from the various expressions of this umbrella movement, so let's start from the beginning.
In the 1930s and '40s, a Latino gang culture spawned at the U.S.-Mexico border near El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico. This "pachuco" (from "chuco," meaning a person from El Paso) culture migrated with the legal and illegal immigrants to California. These Texas-style pachucos came from gangs like the El Paso Tip (ept) and tattooed themselves with a "t" to represent the Texas Tip.
In Los Angeles, similar pachuco-style gangs were spawned, especially from the area around the Maravilla Projects in East L.A. To distinguish themselves from the Texas chucos, they used tattoos such as "LA," "M" (for Maravilla) or "13" (M is the 13th letter of the alphabet).
Gangster style characterized this movement. There were many different Latino gangs in northern and southern California with this "Califas" (California) pachuco style. The movement pre-dates the Mexican Mafia and Nuestra Familia prison gangs.
By the mid-1950s, this Califas style and mostly the Maravilla gang coalition formed the base that spawned the Mexican Mafia at the Deuel Vocational Institute (DVI) in Tracy. Back then, northern and southern California Latino gang members joined the Mexican Mafia. From 1956-'65, there was no other prison gang. The Mexican Mafia expanded from controlling inmates at the DVI youth authority facility to controlling gang inmates in most California prisons and jails.
Gang members who objected to this control broke from the Mexican Mafia and formed Nuestra Familia in about 1965. Some of those who objected and opposed the Mexican Mafia were from Los Angeles gangs, while others were from as far south as San Diego. It was not geography that divided California gangs; it was the two prison-gang lifestyles and whether members felt loyalty to the Mexican Mafia or aligned with Nuestra Familia.
The over simplification of the Sureño (southerner) and Norteño (northerner) conflict seems to be leading gang investigators to believe that the terms only denote and differentiate gangs from north and south of the Bakersfield line. This is wrong thinking. Investigators have even entered Sur 13, South Side, or Sureños as a specific gang in their computer databases. Sureños are an umbrella designation, a coalition.
And despite what you hear about Norteño gang migration, Norteño gangs don't exist for long in Southern California. However, numerous Sureño gangs thrive in Northern California. Both have migrated to other areas of the country.