Nuestra Familia: Prison Gang Profile
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Prison Gang Reports
La Nuestra Familia was formed in Folsom
State Prison around 1968, constructed as a force that could
combat the existing oppression of the traditionally dominant Mexican
Mafia. Since then the Familia has moved eastward across the
United States and developed prominent ties in Colorado state prisons.
According to Robert Koehler (2000), an ex-convict and past member
of the Nuestra Familia, the Family operates as a "mutual aid
society," committed to providing commissary goods to fellow
Familia members in prison at inexpensive or "face value"
costs, and providing commissary goods to members placed in administrative
segregation. This is considered "welfare" The Family operates
a "capitol," or "power base," in the Limon Correctional
Facility in Colorado, considered the most concentrated facility
housing the longest-serving Familianos and Familiano leaders in
According to Koehler, in Colorado prisons, the Familia is an attempt to protect and preserve
culture in the face of a majority white culture saturating both
Colorado prisons and the American criminal justice system. The Familia
operate with a "cause," an ideology that places great
emphasis on the psychological and physical protection of its members
as well as the preservation of the Familia culture itself.
In 1997 an FBI investigation revealed that top-ranking Nuestra
Familia leaders were creating new recruits and turning them into
organized criminal operatives upon release, also known as "wolfpacks."
From their thrones in California's Pelican
Bay State Prison, they controlled the intra-prison drug and
sex trade, while communicating with their members on the outside,
ordering hits and organizing smuggling rings. One Neustra Familia
leader recently released from Pelican Bay was ordered to kill a
member of his own gang, top-ranking Salinas, California gang leader Michael
"Mikeo" Castillo, who was in charge of Sonoma County's
drug operations. Five days after Castillo was released from a short,
DUI jail sentence, he was shot at close range in the head.
The FBI task-force, dubbed "Black Widow," was the largest
investigation into prison gang activities in California's history.
It soon became a multi-agency endeavor, including the FBI, the California Department of Corrections, and the US attorney, operating out of their command center at a downtown high-rise in Santa Rosa, California.
The Nuestra Familia have a strong base in Northern California, Sonoma County, Mendocino County, Santa Rosa, Windsor, and San Jose.
Ukiah became a meeting place for gang leaders in March of 2000,
including the 3 "highest-ranking" Nuestra Familia leaders
in the Bay Area. Northern California, or Norte, is the original
homeland of the Familianos. In the 1970s, many Familianos migrated
to Colorado, where they were later incarcerated and subsequently
developed prison gangs in Colorado's prison system. As the Chicano
prison population grew in the 1970s and 1980s, so too did the Familianos,
and their influence within the prison subculture. The Limon Correctional
Facility, whose purpose was to house the more dangerous and violent
offenders serving the longest sentences, served to concentrate the
Familianos under one roof, strengthening their power within prison.
The Nuestra Familia share allegiances with their Northern California-area
affiliates the Nortenos, rivals of the Mexican Mafia's affiliated
Surenos, which operate out of Southern California. Pelican Bay parolees
were reported by informants in 2000 to be instructed by their Familia
captains to "re-energize" the Nortenos in Sonoma County.
Rico "Smiley" Garcia, a Sonoma County, California native who became a gang captain, was tried for the death penalty after being charged
by the task-force for his extensive involvement in La Nuestra Familia. Around 2000, the leading organizer of a Pelican Bay "wolfpack"
was 26-year-old Robert Haas, a Santa Rosa parolee who was arrested in April after hiding in the home of another convicted Nuestra Familia
leader, Henry "Happy" Cervantes.
Structure and Organization
The structure and operational organization of the Nuestra Familia
is based on a model of capitalist enterprise, and relies on regular
threats against correctional staff to maintain authority. The business
manager, or "store" manager, is a level 1 member that
operates out of a cell, and charges 150% for items purchased by
other inmates. After one week the payback rate is raised to 200%.
If the debt is not repaid within a reasonable amount of time, debt
collectors are assigned to coerce or pressure the convict into paying.
Familianos are privileged in that they are only required to pay
no interest or very little interest. Records of profit from the
"store" are kept secret by the store owner, or memorized
in his head. The financial status and balances of the Familia is
maintained by a "finance minister." Debts are sometimes
repaid by Familianos' family members outside of prison, who send
money orders into the DOC bank accounts of several Familianos, who
then forward the correct debt sum to the financial minister.
At Level 1 there is the finance minister, the business manager,
and the five council members. Among these 5 council members there
is a security chief, who manages the less prestigious level 4 inmates,
the communications chief, and the director. The director oversees
operations, delegates authority, and represents the interests of
the Familia. He makes sure that business is conducted according
to the rules, and decides on important issues concerning the welfare
of the Familia, and the strategies and operations of the family.
The security chief prevents the intrusion of inmates into the Familia's
affairs, issuing warnings to those who interfere, as well as hits
(which are rare) to those who respond to no other solution. The
communications chief directs the messages to members of other gangs
and Familias in other prisons or on the outside. The receivers of
the Familia's messages confirm reception to their family members
outside of prison, and those family members then verify reception
to the Familia when the Familia requests a confirmation, usually
through telephone, with all parties prearranged and aware of their
Level 2 includes negotiators, who act as messengers to other prison
gangs such as the Bloods
and the Crips,
and in Colorado prisons are often Caucasian, as white convicts have
a greater chance of escaping the suspicion of prison guards.
Level 3 soldiers, known as "hustlers," collect drugs
smuggled in by correctional staff and distribute those drugs to
convicts. In securing the drug trade within prison, the Nuestra
Familia attempt to convert guards into "mules," who may
then transport drugs, trade goods, or messages into and out of prison.
Guards become "Mules" when they assist the Familia carry
out its objectives by smuggling in money, drugs, messages, and women
for sex. These duties can often be enforced by using blackmail or
In addition to recruiting "mules," the Nuestra Familia
also recruit what are known as "Wolfpacks" inside prison,
who once paroled, carry out the commands from their imprisoned Familia
captains. These wolfpacks are handed the responsibility of generating
revenue for the Familia on the outside. They are trained in prison
by Familia members, in vocabulary, symbols, hand-signals, proper
dress, as well as how to rob banks, armored cars, and private homes
(NPR: All Things Considered, March 7 2005).
Membership and Initiation
Initiation of members into the Nuestra Familia requires not only
that in most cases one must be a Chicano, but also requires at least
2 years to demonstrate one's character, potential, and righteousness.
Because the process can take many years, only those convicted of
very serious offences, such as murder or armed robbery, are successfully
recruited into the organization. Thus, generally, Familiano leaders
within prison are those that have been incarcerated the longest.
Contrary to what past research has dictated, Koehler stresses that
it is not required for an initiate to commit murder. Nor is it required
for members to remain a member once they have been released and
begin their lives on the outside.
Membership in the gang is generally sought for protection from
other gangs. In the case of a member of the Familia defecting to
another gang, the Familia will usually order a contract hit. Often,
membership can also alleviate the psychological harm imposed by
confinement and the constant threat of danger.
Communication and Symbolism
According to Koehler, the Familia is a secretive and strongly-cohesive
group, and judging by their self-assuredness, ideological adherence,
and solidarity, perhaps resistant to change.
the Aztec calendar
The Nuestra Family's colour is red, in contrast to the colour of
their rivals the Mexican Mafia, who wear blue. 14 is the identifying
number of the Nuestra Family, signifying "N" as the 13th
letter of the alphabet, as well as the Northern Star, and the 14
bonds that members swear to upon initiation. In contrast, the number
13 is reserved for the Mexican Mafia, corresponding to the letter"M."
The sombrero and the dagger are also common symbols. Some inmates
sport tattoos of a black eagle with arched wings on their wrists.
In graffiti, this black eagle points north. The eagle can also be
designed to convey a specific message: an eagle painted black means
sorrow or sadness, while an eagle painted red means bloodshed in
For language and communication, the Familia uses legal mail and
scraps of paper filled with small, almost microscopic letters. They
also use code words written in Nahuatl, an Aztec language. The Familia
has been known to construct "Bad News Lists," containing
hundreds of names and identifying characteristics of gang members
slated to be attacked if admitted to the prison. One of these was
intercepted by a prison guard in Pelican Bay, who found it stuffed
up an inmate's rectum. Many Familia leaders on the outside also
employ scanner radios to monitor police transmissions.
The Nuestra Familia, like all prison gangs, are undoubtedly a highly-secretive,
suspicious, and dedicated criminal organization, similarly committed
to upholding the cultural idenitity in the hierarchy of social,
criminal, and prison culture. While law enforcement has succeeded
in crippling certain operations of the Familia, most investigators
and task-force experts aknowledge that the complete destruction
of the Familia is an impossibility, with the gang's tentacles spanning
state-lines and touching the most vulnerable segment of the population,