Tracking Surenos

Hispanic gangs are among the fastest growing gangs in the country today. Many of the Hispanic gangs that form today across the country claim Sureno or "Sureiio­13" allegiance. Why the proliferation? Where did the Sureno gangs originate?

This Hispanic gang has roots in the early part of the 1900s but is still going strong.

Hispanic gangs are among the fastest growing gangs in the country today.  Many of the Hispanic gangs that form today across the country claim Sureno or "Sureiio¬≠13" allegiance. Why the proliferation? Where did the Sureno gangs originate?

What does Sureno really mean?

The answers to these questions come from a pair of shoes and the Mex­ican prison gang, La Erne. Sgt. Joe Guzman, of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, observed that Los Angeles experienced the birth of Mexican street gangs in the early 1900s. Guzman also correctly conclud­ed that gangs form for a number of rea­sons. Economic conditions, racism and prejudice are all factors.

Some History

During 1956 and 1957, Guero "Buff' Flores and other East Los Angeles gang members were doing hard time at Duel Vo­cational Institute in California. Together, they formed the "gang of gangs," La Erne, California's first prison gang.

La Erne originally formed, in part, for protection from the other prison popula­tions. Because the gang's membership was based on race, it was logical to start recruiting new members from Mexican street gangs. Surprisingly, however, some of the original members were not only Mexican, but of mixed race and one was Korean.

Between the street and prison gang ac­tivity a natural rivalry developed between Mexicans from Northern California and Mexicans from Southern California.

Mexicans from Northern California were considered unsophisticated because they were from rural and farming areas. Northerners considered Mexicans from Southern California to be "hamburger eat­ing Mexicans," according to Sgt. Richard Valdimar, of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

 By 1967 La Erne was trying to unite all the Mexicans in the state. There was a concerted effort to put down the minor rivalries and unite to form the strongest and largest prison gang.

In 1968, at San Quentin, a state prison in Northern California, something hap­pened that would change prison and street gangs forever.

The Shoes Fit: North and South Division

In San Quentin, an original Erne mem­ber was the roommate of a Mexican from Northern California who had a pair of shoes that was his prized possession. He would shine them every day. One day, while he and the Erne member were out of their cell, a third inmate stole the shoes.

The inmate who stole the shoes was associated with La Erne. He took the shoes back to his cell and discovered they were too small for him. In an effort to win some points with La Erne he de­cided to give the shoes as a gift to a mem­ber of the prison gang. He chose the roommate of the man he had just stolen the shoes from.

The shoes fit, and the Erne gang mem­ber walked back into his cell only to find his roommate looking for the shoes. An argument ensued because the real owner of the shoes accused the Erne gang mem­ber of stealing them. The gangster stabbed his roommate several times during the ar­gument, killing him. Word of this quickly spread throughout the prison system.

This murder sparked the solidification of the rivalry between Northern and Southern California Mexicans, both in the prisons and on the streets. The Mexicans from the northern part of the state respond­ed by forming Nuestra Familia (NF), a second Mexican prison gang, to protect the northern Mexicans from La Erne, the southern-based Mexican prison gang.

By the Numbers

Street and prison gang members from Northern California started to iden­tify with the number 14. It repre­sented the fourteenth letter of the alphabet, the letter "N." The letter

stood for "Nortefio," the Spanish word for northerner. Anybody from Southern California was now con­sidered a rival in and out of prison.

Southern California gang mem­bers started to identify with the num­ber 13. The thirteenth letter of the al­phabet is the letter "M." 1l1e word for this letter in Spanish is "Eme." Southern Cali­fornia gang members in and out of prison started using words like "Sureno," meaning southerner. Often, it was abbreviated as "sur." Gang members also started to tattoo themselves with the number 13 and with the words Sureno or sur to signify their origin.

Rival Southern California Hispanic street gangs had one thing in common:

They were enemies of anyone from Northern California. This rivalry would unite them in jail and in state prisons. The same was true for Northern Califor­nia Hispanic street gang members, ex­cept their enemy was any gang member from the southern part of the state.

Mexican street and prison gangs from Northern California claim the color red. This was based on the fact that most of the Southern California Mexicans in state prison had chosen the blue colored railroad handkerchief. The Crips and Bloods were not the first to chose colors.

Widespread Membership

Somewhere while the dust was settling between these groups an imaginary line was marked signifying the boundary be­tween "Northern" and "Southern" Cali­fornia. It was usually agreed that it was somewhere between the cities of Bakers­field and Delano in central California.

Outside the state of California this north-south rivalry intensified. Mexican street gangs even started to write graffiti with red paint and blue paint to signify what part of California they were from. In the late 1980s states to the north of California started to see the appearance of Sureno and Nortefio gangs and of course, the related violence.

By the late 1980s to early 1990s most of the southwestern states started to note the presence of street gangs calling themselves "Sureno" or "Surefio-13." What was unique about these street gangs was that many times the members were not from California. Hispanic and Hispanic hybrid street gangs claimed Southern California allegiance, often with no formal connections to tradition­al Mexican street gangs from Southern California. The same thing happened with some Hispanic street gangs that formed outside of California and that claimed Nortefio status.

I have mentioned before that the major­ity of street gangs develop in the geograph­ical location in which they are located. Gang migration has accounted for a small percent of gang growth, but there are cases, throughout the country, of Califor­nia Hispanic street and prison gang mem­bers starting new groups in other states. These types of gang members are catalysts for the rapid, seemingly overnight appear­ance of Sureno-type gangs.

Some Sureno or Sureno-13 gangs will have roots tracing back to California. Enough time has passed that there are now first- or second-generation Sureno gangs outside the state of California.

Unique Characteristics

In early 1993' another unique phe­nomenon was seen with Hispanic street gangs from Los Angeles. Being turf-ori­ented, they battle whenever they see each other. Outside the state of Califor­nia, however, individual rival gang mem­bers began to work together to sell drugs. Cooperating together, these individuals attempted to take over drug markets from the less experienced and less vio­lent groups. These gang members band­ed together under the common name, Sureno or Sureno-13. This tactic was used very successfully by the African­ American Blood and Crip gangs in the late 1980s.

Law enforcement has encountered three types of Sureno gangs outside Cal­ifornia. They are the Sureno gangs that have family ties to or were star1ed by mi­grating California gang members; Sureno gangs that adopted the name and have no formal ties to California; and Sureno gangs that have members from different California Hispanic· street gangs working together as one gang.

Sureno street gangs can be localized in one part of your city or they can travel all over a city. In some cases, Sureno gang members live in different cities or counties and meet to socialize and to commit crime.

Females can be part of some Sureno gangs. They can be members in hybrid Sureno gangs. Often they are associates or girl friend of the participating gang. They may be used as drug couriers or to gather intelligence on rival gangs.

Sureno gang members who go to state prison can start Sureno prison gangs and solicit members from the ex­isting prison population and street gangs. This background may be helpful when you talk to Sureno gang members in your jurisdiction.

Be safe!

AI Valdez is an investigator with the Orange County (Calif.) District Attor­ney's Office.


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