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Pinta Bound

Part 1 2 3

NF micro-writing - photo by John Burgess/Press Democrat

NF generals at in the Pelican Bay SHU controlled dozens of street regiments like Cortina's. Twenty-five percent of profits, mainly from drug dealing, was deposited in NF bank accounts. To do all this, the gang used ingenious methods.

"We've got several examples of what we call micro-writing," says officer David Barneburg, as he shows off a pile of recently intercepted messages.

The NF passes messages in legal mail and in scraps of paper filled with tiny, almost microscopic script.

"This is what we refer to as a BNL, a bad news list," says Barneburg. "This one I've got is actually 14 pages long and contains about 1500 names of northern Hispanics, their CDC [California Department of Corrections] number, any marks or tattoos they have that we can identify them by. Whenever somebody arrives to a yard, this list will be referenced. If their name is on the list, they'll be targeted for assault. And this is only a partial list."

"That list was recovered from a northern Hispanic in the B facility of the prison," Barneburg continues. "It was recovered by the staff and had been secreted in the inmate's rectum."

Gang members don't just hide messages in body cavities. They also write them in exotic languages. This method is so pervasive, Pelican Bay actually banned anything written in Swahili, Celtic, Runic and Nahuatl, an Aztec language used by the Nuestra Familia.

"Every time we tighten the screws so to speak, they're going to find a way around it," says Lt. Robert Marquez, Pelican Bay's chief gang investigator. He says even though guards read inmates' mail and monitor their phone calls, gang leaders still get their orders out onto the streets. "If they know a certain gang member's paroling they'll give him all kinds of messages, phone numbers, contacts, hit lists. So the guy leaves here with a cache of information [of] people who are supposed to be murdered, people who are supposed to be extorted."

Out of prison flows crime. No place has been hit harder than Salinas, the farming town in central California that once inspired John Steinbeck.

Three men in their late teens, members of a street gang tied to the Nuestra Familia. - photo by Janjaap Dekker, courtesy Center for Investigative Reporting

In an east Salinas neighborhood with rows of tidy houses, three men in their late teens stand in an open garage. They are members of a street gang with close links to the Nuestra Familia. One man, who calls himself Juan, is sealing a drug deal on his cell phone.

The men wear short hair, red baseball caps, and football jerseys. With pride, they show off torsos etched with gang tattoos and scars from bullet wounds.

"I believe in being a homeboy," says Juan. "I just believe I will die for my cause, for my struggle."

Juan says the struggle is about defending northern California Latinos, called "norteños," from the enemy, Latinos with roots in southern California, known as "sureños." But it's really a struggle for drug turf that began behind bars with two long-feuding prison gangs: the NF, which spawned the nortenos, and the Mexican Mafia, an even bigger prison gang that rallies the sureños.

The proxy war between northern and southern California Latinos has claimed hundreds of lives. It burns in places like Salinas where poverty and unemployment are severe.

Now, some people are getting fed up with the violence. Demonstrators in Salinas recently gathered to mourn the city's 250th gang related killing since the early 1990s. They beat drums, chanted and watch Aztec-style dancing.

Not all the victims are gang members. Elsa Sandoval came here to remember her 27-year-old son Joey. He was killed two years ago in what appeared to be a random shooting. His murder, like many in Salinas, remains unsolved.

"We won't stop," says Sandoval, "until we find these son-of-a-bitches that killed our sons. We'll find them."

NF old timers say this kind of street violence is not what the group was founded for. Like many prison gangs, the NF started as a prisoner defense group in the late 1960s. The NF established a constitution and an educational curriculum. But the NF moved into the drug trade and grew more violent.

The NF expanded into youth jails and onto the streets. Leaders imposed military-style discipline and a lifetime commitment often sealed in the killing of a rival.


Continue to part 3