The Nortenos gang of Northern California has its roots in the prisons of the state. A Chicano gang associated with the Nuestra family, it started in 1960 when the inmates of the California state prison system began to identify by hometown and divide themselves into northerners and southerners, using the community of Delano as the dividing line. The Nortenos, or northerners became the bitter rivals of the southerner Surenos, an off-shoot of the Mexican mafia. Allegedly, this long-standing rivalry was sparked by an incident in which a member of the Mexican mafia stole a pair of shoes from a northerner. Thus, the longest running gang rivalry in the California state prison system was created.
The Nortenos have been involved in numerous counts of drug and contraband trafficking, murder, and armed conflict. Some police reports claim that full membership requires at least one murder at the gang’s behest. What makes the Nortenos so dangerous is their high level of organization, including a written constitution of sorts and rigid command structure. The chain of command keeps track of every gang in the state, though there are gang members in every other state, as well as in several European countries. While the Surenos have much inter-gang rivalry, the Nortenos are unified, keeping them one of the most powerful and threatening gangs in California. A list of the Nortenos laws was found by police in a prison. It includes provisions against drug and alcohol abuse, as well as homosexual activity, and discusses duties and required hours of attention.
Members identify themselves with the color red and the number fourteen (N being the fourteenth letter of the alphabet), often getting tattoos of the number, in roman or arabic numerals, or four dots, in contrast to the three dots tattoo used by the Surenos. The also don the color red, and sports apparel that uses symbolism representing their affiliation. Examples include San Francisco 49ers gear and K-Swiss shoes. The often wear their hair long, sometimes with a top-knot or with the sides shaved. They also closely associate themselves with the 5-pointed star and the Huelga bird, a symbol of the United Farm Workers. However, a member must earn these symbols by committing murder or assault on the gang’s enemies.
Youth culture of the gang is important and very visible. In the past, lowrider cars and Southern chicano imagery were favored by the group, but more recently African-American hip-hop culture has had more and more influences on styles. The Surenos, closer to Mexico, have more of a hispanic culture than do the Nortenos, some of whom may not even speak fluent Spanish.
Though the Nortenos have been unsuccessful in gaining any territory past the Delano dividing line, the Surenos have gained ground in the north. The difficulties of the Nortenos in this area speaks to the gang density in the South, where the number of Surenos in Los Angeles outnumbers Crips and Bloods combined. However, the Nortenos still remain one of the most famous and dangerous gangs in the United States.