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Nuestra Familia: Prison Gang Profile

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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 the state.

According to Koehler, in Colorado prisons, the Familia is an attempt to protect and preserve Chicano 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 respective responsibilities.

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 extortion.

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 the neighborhood.

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, youth.



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