Sureños and the Mexican Mafia
Recent Arrests in Bozeman and West Yellowstone a Concern
BY MARCELLA WEST
First it was the Livingston-related Outlaws motorcycle gang arrests (see July issue Montana Pioneer), now it’s the Sureños in Bozeman and West Yellowstone. Sureños denotes a widespread network of Mexican-American gangs loosely related to the Mexican Mafia based in the California prison system. Last month, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested 10 Mexican nationals for illegal reentry into the United States, most of whom Immigration officials said were affiliated with a hard core street gang called the Sureños, a group with ties to the Mexican Mafia. Nine of the men face deportation. “The tenth man will face federal charges in Montana of reentering the United States after having been previously deported multiple times, ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle’s Jodi Hausen in July.
The Sureños are a loosely knit but prolific criminal network formed in California prisons in the 1950s comprised of Mexican-American street gang members, mostly from the barrios of East Lost Angeles. The gang has since taken root in many state and federal prisons and spread into various U.S. states and cities.
“Criminal gangs, such as the Sureños and others, are becoming increasingly involved in Montana with smuggling and distributing narcotics, laundering illicit drug proceeds, and other illegal activities," an ICE release stated, according to the Chronicle.
Eight of the gang-related arrests took place in Bozeman, two in West Yellowstone, through a cooperative effort of The Missouri River Drug Task Force, the West Yellowstone Police Department, and The Gallatin County Sheriff's Office.
Gallatin County Sheriff Jim Cashell told the Chronicle that the arrests and operation as a whole “went smoothly,” but that he could not comment on the federal investigation. He said federal officials had called upon local law enforcement for assistance with the operation and arrests.
The Sureños and the Mexican Mafia
The Mexican Mafia came into existence at the Duel Vocational Institute in Tracy, California, back in the 1950s.
White inmates, at the time, controlled much of what went on inside the prison. Occupying official prison inmate positions, they enjoyed the various perks that came with those positions, and they also controlled the prison’s illicit activities. With young Mexican-Americans being incarcerated in greater and greater numbers, pulled from the streets as criminal offenders, Mexican, street gangs soon became a force on the inside. Banding together, at first just a few, they set their sights on wresting control from the whites and cornering the trade in illegal narcotics.
The gang members set up their criminal organization in emulation of La Cosa Nostra, well publicized at the time, and indeed the Mexicans would soon become known as the Mexican Mafia.
Mexican-Americans entering the penal system in California found a haven with the newly formed Mexican-American gang, and by the 60s, the Mexican Mafia had established itself and dominated the illegal drug trade in California’s prisons.
Membership had its prerequi-sites—first, that a prospective member be Mexican. Such a recruit was then required to perpetrate a violent assault on a rival, usually a stabbing with a prison shiv fabricated inside the facility. A member then moved up in the ranks based on the number of stabbings or assaults he took on.
The rules of membership though changed over time, requiring sponsorship by three active members, and even by taking out, killing, a wayward member, one who violated the requirements of membership by having, for example, engaged in homosexuality, acted in cowardice, become and informant, or for having acted in other ways that the leadership believed denigrated the respect that should be accorded the the group, known as La Eme (the letter M in Spanish, for the Mexican Mafia). Christianity was also forbidden, along with simply displaying an attitude that denigrated another member’s sense of loyalty and dedication to La Eme.
Duties of incarcerated Mexican Mafia members included activities that brought power and money to the gang—extortion, selling drugs, and dominating other inmates.
La Eme’s power structure, then and now, benefits those at the top, a relative few, according to former members. It is the leaders who reap the rewards of the drug trade (as with the Italian Mafia, though the Italian Mafia rewards its footsoldiers more generously) while underlings commit acts of violence behind bars that extend their prison sentences. And then even paroled member of La Eme must funnel money back to their leaders in prison. Members on the outside must also demand cuts of the profits made by Mexican street gangs.
Rivalries within La Eme though created a splinter group in the late 1960s, Nuestra Familia (Our Family), most of whom were Northern Californians. The two groups fought violently, and so the Mexican Mafia began identifying itself as southern Californian, or Sureños (meaning southern), and the northerners as Norteños (northerners).
On the outside, the Sureños established new bands of young Hispanics that traded in illegal narcotics and who would become involved with violent crime. These new young gang members quickly learned that they were to be aligned with the Sureños, in or out of prison, and so hispanic gangs in southern California came under the control of the prison-based Mexican Mafia.
Sureños on the street are not necessarily as cohesive or homogeneous as those on the inside, and they are distinct from the Mexican Mafia, though a product of the group originally. What’s more, rivalries and conflicts can occur among Sureños outside of prison. Once incarcerated though they more formally take on the role and discipline of members of the Mexican Mafia and adhere to the dictates of the leaders.
Sureños identify themselves symbolically though with the Mexican Mafia, using the number 13, which represents the letter M’s numeric place in the alphabet. Various related representations turn up in their tattoos and graffiti. Mexican Mafia members’ symbology includes the word La Eme, MM, and the symbol of the Black Hand, borrowed early on from La Cosa Nostra. Sureños are not however actual members of the Mexican Mafia simply for having been Sureños, and most have no direct ties to the organization. Mexican Mafia members though are recruited from their ranks, and the long arm of La Eme’s power and control extends into their various gangs, in the same way that the Italian Mafia once extended its tentacles, as it so desired, into criminal enterprises within its domain of influence or control.
With the various Sureños gangs having ventured out into states and cities beyond California, that influence and control can also. Few Sureños though can be formally identified as Mexican Mafia, even as Sureños serve as the pool from which La Eme draws its recruits. Certain street gangs, what’s more, call themselves Mexican Mafia but are not actually related.
The Mexican Mafia now has a presence in most prisons nation-wide, state and federal, and in most states in the country. Few gangs outside the state of California though have direct ties to the actual Mexican Mafia.