Norteños vs. Sureños: An Overview

Rachel Gauer and Natasha Thomas

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In 1968, a predominantly Latino prison gang, Nuestra Familia, formed in the California State Prison System. Their formation occurred after they decided that northerners were receiving unfair treatment from the prison gang, Mexican Mafia, which is also known as La Eme.

The Norteño gang began as a supporter of the California-based Nuestra Familia gang, however, since 1968, the Norteños have spread across the U.S. These other branches of Norteños support other groups throughout the nation.

Initially, members of the Norteño gang were from only cities in the northern region of California, or “el Norte.” Aside from other branches throughout the country, the majority of members who support Nuestra Familia remain in Northern California and rarely reside past the Bakersfield area. The rough border between the supporters of the Mexican Mafia and Nuestra Familia was initially around this Bakersfield and Fresno area; however, many supporters of the Mexican Mafia have slowly spread more into the Northern California area since the split between the two prison gangs in 1968.

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Throughout Northern California, the Norteño gang has a relatively large presence. Just in Sonoma County, there are approximately 1,600 members. Multiple Norteño gang-related crimes have occurred within Sonoma County, and although the majority of them are between street gang members, some incidents have affected non-gang members.

Sonoma County has many different branches of Norteño gangs, including the Varrio Santa Rosa Norte gang, which has over 300 members, and the Varrio South Park gang. Both groups are based in Santa Rosa, California. In 2013, seven members from the Varrio South Park gang were indicted by the federal government for attempted murder, drug trafficking, robbing, and other gang-related crimes.

Recent activity by both gangs has slowed in past years, and when traveling through their territories in Santa Rosa, many tags––graffiti marking their presence––have been covered up and not replaced. Despite this, the tension between the divisions of Norteños and Sureños will always remain.


La Eme, better known as the Mexican Mafia, was established in 1958 by 13 Hispanic prisoners in the Southern California area. The Sureños, also known as Sur 13,  formed in 1960 as a supporter of the Mafia. Sureños are characterized by the color blue and the number 13 (which pays tribute to the “M” in Mexican Mafia).

The majority of the business Sureños do is centered around drugs and drug trafficking. Because Sureños pay tribute to the Mafia, they typically give a portion of their profits from their business to them. Initially Sureños stayed in the Southern California area; however, now there are many members all along the western states as well as western Canada.

The spread of Sureños throughout the country is due to multiple factors that have occurred since the establishment of their gang.  Because many Sureños initially began as immigrants from Mexico, the majority of the members are Latino, with other races rarely represented.

During the 1980s, a rise in migration occurred in San Jose, and, because many of these migraters were Mexican immigrants who were loyal to their homeland of Mexico, they supported the Mexican Mafia and joined Sureño street gangs. This outbreak was the first for Sureños in a more Northern part of California. Since then, Sureños have expanded their presence upwards even further, and it is common to find Sureños all around the state.

In Sonoma County, their presence is almost as significant as the Norteño gang’s, with roughly 1,500 Sureño members. A branch of Sureños called La Primera are responsible for approximately 100 Sureño-affiliated members in Sonoma County. La Primera originated in Petaluma and Rohnert Park in the 1990s; however, due to high real estate prices, members of La Primera have migrated closer to Santa Rosa.

In San Francisco –– about an hour south of Santa Rosa ––   there were multiple arrests of Sureños in Apr. of 2018 connected to past crimes dating as far back as 2005. In addition to the murders, there was also evidence of gang members selling cocaine and heroin. These arrests put many families and victims at rest, but heavy conflict still remains throughout the various groups of the Norteño and Sureño gangs across California. 


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