When I taught in the advanced Gang School at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Academy, I would always begin by telling the students to forget what they thought they knew about street gangs.
I would have them imagine that we were going on a trip to a faraway land, to a country and a culture with very different customs, clothing, family values, and religions. We were going to visit a place where various warring tribes spoke different languages.
The reason I did this is that it helped the students lose many of their false assumptions about gangs, so they could study gang behavior in contrast to the typical behavior and culture of non-gang affiliated Americans.
One of the first things that you discover when you look at gangs as a foreign culture is that different gangs share similar beliefs. It really does not matter where these citizens of “Gangland” or their parents originated. Even though they claim to be Aztec, African, or Aryan warriors, they are strangely very similar to each other and very different from the rest of us.
Like professionals anywhere and in any field, professional career criminals and gang members of all races have a certain technical vocabulary and occupational slang. This slang is derived from the jail and prison cultures that are their natural habitats. Many of the words have become common to all gangs and some have even spread to mainstream American culture.
For example, everyone knows what the “big house” is. The term originated among New York prison inmates in the 1920s and referred then to Sing Sing prison. It has now become common slang for any prison.
Here’s a quick guide to some prison slang terms that are common to many California gangs:
• Al Cola—Prison adjustment center, the hole.
• Alice Baker—The Aryan Brotherhood prison gang, also called “The Brand”
• Baghdad by the Bay—San Quentin Prison
• Bakers—Corcoran Prison near Bakersfield, Calif.
• Broadway—The free world, anywhere not prison.
• Country Club–Tehachapi Prison
• Claim Jumper–Someone who falsely claims gang membership
• Emily—Mexican Mafia, also called “eme”
• Farmers—Nuestra Familia prison gang
• Follie—Folsom Prison
• Furniture—Prison knives
• In the Car—Affiliated with a gang
• In the Hat—On somebody’s hit list to be murdered
• Kite, Wire, or Wila—Letter or written message
• Main Street—The yard in general population
• Nancy Flores—Nuestra Familia prison gang
• Riders—Bikers or Nazi Low Riders
• Screw, Bull, or Turn Key—Correction Officers
The Calo Gang Language
According to Chicano scholar José Antonio Burciaga, “Caló” was originally the dialect of Spanish gypsies. But American Chicano Caló is the combination of Hispanicized English; Anglicized Spanish; and the use of archaic 15th-century Spanish words. “In this country, Caló is often called Tex-Mex, or Spanglish, without taking into consideration its unique multicultural, political, societal, and linguistic function and formation,” Burciaga writes.
In the 1940s, jazz and swing music inspired a language called "hep talk" or "jive." The cities of El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico, contributed to this new jive Language by adding playful local Spanish and American slang terms called Calo.
In this language the nickname for a native of El Paso is "Chuco," so the culture that developed there became known as "Pachuco" culture. Mexican and American smugglers, pimps, and gamblers embraced this Pachuco lifestyle and the Calo language. Local gang members also adapted this style.
As a result most gang members—no matter their race— who are in gangs that have roots to that period use Calo terms. If you are interested in Hispanic gang slang, I recommend you contact the International Latino Gang Investigators Association (www.ilgia.org) and request their Calo and Spanish slang dictionary.
Here’s a few samples of gang Calo:
• Alambre (wire)—Phone call or message
• A todo madre (totally mother)—an exclamation signifying a very good or very bad thing
• Barrio or Varrio—Neighborhood or the gang that controls it
• Carnal–Brother or a very close friend
• Chale or Nel–Hell no!
• Chante (shanty)—House or cell
• Chota–Cop or Corrections Officer
• Con Safos (with pride)—Don’t mess with us
• Cuete (firecracker)—Gun
• Filero—Knife, shank
• Gavachos–White boys
• Heina – Girlfriend
• Jura–Police or correction officers
• Mayates–Derogatory term for blacks
• Mojado (wet)—Wetback
• Norteno–Hispanic Northern California gang member
• Orale–right away, also “all right!”
• Pinta (paint)—Prison
• Puto–Punk, homosexual
• Quibole or Q-vo–What’s happening?
• Ranfla–Car, low-rider
• Rifa (reefer)—Marijuana, also “the best!”
• Scrapas (scraps)—Derogatory for Surenos
• Surat–Derogatory for Sureno
• Sureno – Hispanic Southern California gang member
• Torceda (twisted)—Busted in jail or prison
• Trucha–Look Out! Or a trustee lookout.
• Vato–Crazy Dude, gang member circa 1950 to 1960
Because the juvenile facilities wards, the jail inmates, and prison populations self segregate, gangs that evolved in self-defense from these power groups were identified with one racial group. As they recruited newer members, the indoctrination of the less-experienced neophyte criminals always included racial superiority brainwashing to get them to hate the enemy gangs.
Gang members are taught that they are soldiers representing their culture and defenders of their race. I guess no one ever points out to them that more than 90 percent of the time gangs kill within their own race.
This racist cultural brainwashing often includes a “return” to the gang members’ ancestral language, religion, and symbolism. For example, the Aryan Brotherhood (AB) uses the ancient pagan religions of the Vikings and Celts and the Celtic Gaelic language and rune alphabet. African-American inmates under the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) study African tribal dialects, especially Swahili, and are encouraged to “return” to the Islamic faith.
Finally, both the Mexican Mafia and the Nuestra Familia have for many years enforced the learning of the ancient Aztec culture among Hispanic gang members, both Surenos and Nortenos. The Aztec language of Nahuatl and the Mayan-Aztec numbering system are commonly used by Hispanic gang members from anywhere in the Southwest. This, despite the fact that many of them are not fluent in either Spanish or English.
Gaelic, Swahili, and even Nahuatl dictionaries are available, some can be found on the Internet. An excellent source for translating runes can be found in J.R.R. Tolkien’s third book of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “Return of the King.”
Here are a few Nahuatl words that may be useful in working with Hispanic gangs:
• Atlatl–A skinning knife
• Calli (house)—Cell
• Cahuayo (horse)—Heroin
• Chichiltic (red)—Nortenos
• Macuahitl–War Club
• Malinali (grass)—Marijuana
• Octli (wine)—Pruno
• Pili Pol–Small person
• Pilli (lord, nobleman)—Senior Mexican Mafia member
• Pitzome (pig)—Cops and corrections officers
• Qualanqui–Angry at everyone
• Tecpatl–Big knife
• Topile (law)—Cops
• Tuca (rat)—Snitch
• Uel–Good or OK
Codes and Ciphers
Although the gangs’ use of the Spanish, Gaelic, Swahili, and even Nahuatl languages are designed to prevent law enforcement and rival gangs from intercepting and deciphering their communications, sometimes the most difficult language to decode is what Mexican Mafia member “Boxer” Enriquez calls “carnival talk.” I know this from hours of personally monitoring Title III wiretaps and intercepted jail and prison gang conversations.
Carnival talk seems like normal conversation in English, but key information is hidden in innocuous words, conveying a meaning to the intended recipient that is different from the one the casual listener might hear. This was commonly used by carnival mind readers and “mentalists” in sideshow performances when communicating with his assistant about members of the gullible audience. The blindfolded mentalist was able to learn detailed information about the sucker because of the coded words his assistant provided before the reading.
Here’s how carnival talk works for gangs. When Boxer would tell another party on the telephone, “Make sure that you give my best to Joe, I heard he wasn’t felling well.” This actually meant, “Kill Joe on my authority.” This is a difficult system to decode and defeat and a nightmare to prove in court.
Bilingual members of law enforcement and electronic monitoring and recording of conversations forced the inmates and prison gang members to further code their communication. Morse code, American Sign Language, and letter-number substitution systems are in common use.
In the simplest letter-number substitution A=1, B=2, C=3, M=13 and so on. The order of the alphabet may be scrambled requiring the communicators to have a key or Rosetta stone decoder. Sometimes the alphabet is placed on a grid or matrix and the decoder gives the line and space number of each letter.
The very common Tic Tac Toe code simply places the 26 letters of the alphabet in the spaces formed by two Tic Tac Toe symbols (# - 9 letters each) and two X symbols (4 letters each) 9 + 9 + 4+ 4 = 26.
Instead of writing the letters, the code writer will draw the part of the Tic Tac Toe grid or X symbol that the letter is found in. In this system the fifth letter of the alphabet will occupy the center of the first Tic Tac Toe symbol and would be expressed by a small square. The letter in the top position of the first X would be expressed as a V.
Here are some hints to help you decode gang messages:
Look for repeated symbols, clues at the beginning or end of the message, inconsistent subject matter, symbols placed into the text, subtle marks, unusual punctuation, numbers in the text, and key words.
“Invisible” and “Ghost Writing” can be hidden in regular correspondence. This is accomplished by the use of inks made from milk, urine, citrus juice, and sugared water that disappear when dried and reappear when placed over a heat source.
The codes I describe above are mere child’s play compared to some of the complex ciphers gang members have used in the past. Dep. John Williams of the LASD, Leadership and Training Division gives an excellent class on this subject. If you are interested in further training catch one of his classes before he retires. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (213) 893-5171.