The city of Salinas, California, is the birthplace of John Steinbeck and the setting for his epic masterpiece East of Eden, but it is also the home of Nuestra Familia, one of the most violent gangs in the United States. Born in the prisons of California in the late 1960s, Nuestra Familia expanded to control drug trafficking and extortion operations throughout the northern half of the state, and left a trail of bodies in its wake. Award-winning journalist Julia Reynolds tells the gang’s story from the inside out, following young men and women as they search for a new kind of family, quests that usually lead to murder and betrayal. Blood in the Fields also documents the history of Operation Black Widow, the FBI’s questionable decade-long effort to dismantle the Nuestra Familia, along with its compromised informants and the turf wars it created with local law enforcement agencies. Reynolds uses her unprecedented access to gang members, both in and out of prison, as well as undercover wire taps, depositions, and court documents to weave a gripping, comprehensive history of this brutal criminal organization and the lives it destroyed.
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About the Author
Julia Reynolds coproduced and wrote the PBS documentary Nuestra Familia, Our Family, and reported on the northern California gang for more than a decade. She currently works as a staff writer at the Monterey County Herald and has reported for National Public Radio, the Discovery Channel, The Nation, Mother Jones, the San Francisco Chronicle, and more.
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Blood in the Fields
Ten Years Inside California's Nuestra Familia Gang
By Julia Reynolds
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2014 Julia Reynolds
All rights reserved.
LIL SCRAP KILLAS
It would have been a perfect day, the kind he'd remember with a tug in his chest later on in jail. Carne sizzling on the grills, oldies blasting their smooth poetry of one true love, and the little kids chasing each other around grown-up legs. Lil Mando wanted to kick it while he could. But he couldn't, not with Lobo around. As if the man's whole purpose in life was to ruin good things, that fat pintero stood there with a cup of beer in hand, spewing tales to a gathering audience. When he glanced up from the crowd, Lobo's half-mast eyes said he brushed off Lil Mando as an insignificant youngster.
The birthmark on Mando's forehead, usually invisible, bloomed into a dark red. His heart beat as wildly as a trapped bird, but he swallowed and made himself learn, imagining how he'd one day be like those so-called veteranos — but even more, how he would be different. Very different. He was the son of a founder of Salinas East Market, the oldest and bravest Norteño gang, and he understood that greatness coursed in his veins.
They were in Toro Park, a no-man's-land south of Salinas where in spring the hills turned a glowing green spotted with purple lupine. In summer now, they were a dry gold and the only signs of life were hawks and weathered live oaks and families gathered around picnic tables on blue-sky afternoons.
On the run from a boy's ranch, Mando joined his friends in that arid spot where the happy occasion was the baptism of his homeboy Gabe's son — not that it ever took much for a group of Norteños to kick off a pachanga.
When they'd set out for the park, he thought it would be the kind of day he could lock inside his memory so that when he was lying on a bunk in juvenile hall, he'd look back on it with a smile. At the best of these parties, the women fixed shrimp, roast pork, steak, and beans and rice, served in the pink light of afternoon. Great-uncles and grandparents sat remembering México, teenagers whispered among themselves, and the veteranos, back from a prison stint, told war stories near the corner of a backyard fence. Sometimes Mando's own dad recounted those tales, but on this day that fat fuck Lobo was holding it down.
Lobo was a loud man, built like a bullfrog, all swollen on top with skinny legs. Though he was nothing to look at, the prettiest females appraised him with a cocked eyebrow while the men listened intently, occasionally nodding.
Mando wanted that. Not that he'd ever cover his body with blue-black prison tats or grow one of those horseshoe brochas. "The bigger the mustache and the more tattoos, the less of a man," his tía once told him. And he would never strut around in a baggy plaid Pendleton to cover up a beer gut. Lobo may have been a respected veterano, but Mando was younger, smarter, and quicker. And fearless — he knew in his heart he had everything it took to put in the work.
Though a youngster of thirteen, Mando was big for his age and long ago sensed that destiny had made him a soldier. His Mexican grandfather had killed a man defending the family, and his dad taught him he came from a line of proud fighting men. When he was born, an aunt took one look at Armando Tizoc's tiny face and pronounced his future: he would be trouble, just like his dad. For a boy surrounded by Norteño cousins and uncles — including several who made it into Nuestra Familia — it was an obvious conclusion. Mando vowed to be better than Lobo, to be so good people would listen to his war stories. That day would come, he was sure.
The beer ran out, and the homeboys passed a hat. Lobo was drunk. Mando soaked up the booze and the sun and the girls, but he couldn't relax. He and Lobo had recently gotten into it again. The week before at a Salinas East Market (SEM) house party where homies fresh out of prison mingled with the SEM youngsters, Lobo was badmouthing an uncle of Mando's rumored to be in bad standing with the Nuestra Familia.
"Your dad's a good homie," Lobo said, "but your uncle fucked up."
Mando didn't take the bait.
"Why're you telling me? Go talk to him about it," Mando said. He didn't give a shit about the Nuestra Familia. He was a Norteño, a real gangbanger, not one of those old stuck-up familianos who thought they ran the world. Mando recalled that Lobo had given him the stare that said This ain't over.
Then, to make matters worse, Lobo tried to get with the only female still available by the evening's end, and Mando, though barely in his teens, had managed to slip into a bedroom with the twenty-year-old woman. They left Lobo passed out in the living room.
Now, as the beer collection hat reached him, Mando emptied a plastic bag of change into it. When his fingers dove into the cap to wriggle the last coins loose, Lobo told everyone, "Look, Lil Mando's trying to steal the cash!"
Mando glanced up, his eyes tiny, distant.
"Fuck you," Mando said. "I didn't try to steal shit!" His homie from Casitas jumped between the two and urged Mando to kick back. Mando passed the hat, then walked in silence to his friend's car, where a loaded .380 was hidden. He slipped the gun into his pants. It was time to take control of this situation.
* * *
Truth was, he was a born leader, and he'd been a leader since he was first put in charge of his brother's safety at the age of six. He was allowed to take little Chinto to play a whole block away in Closter Park, and he never forgot the lessons of that day they faced a terrifying surprise just before they made it home to Grandma's.
"Oh no, there's Buddy in the front yard!" Chinto had cried. Grandma's neighbor had a big husky-type dog that was real furry. Buddy looked like a giant white wolf.
Mando told Chinto, "Don't worry, we'll cross the street and go around." They'd been taught to hold hands, look both ways, and then cross. But they stood frozen, petrified by the ferocious wolf-beast. Mando took a breath and explained the plan.
"We're going to have to run real fast across the street," he said. "On the count of three, we gotta run real fast."
They held hands, and on three they sprinted as fast as they could, trying to steer around Buddy and all the while screaming at the top of their lungs. Buddy charged straight at them. Chinto tripped and fell down. Mando didn't know what to do. He kept running. As he looked back, he saw Buddy jump on his brother. He saw blood.
He ran inside screaming, "Mom! Buddy's eating Chinto!"
Everyone rushed outside. Seeing the grown-ups' reactions in the confusion, Mando realized his mistake. The dog wasn't being mean — Buddy had tried to jump on his brother to play and had accidentally busted the boy's nose. The relief that came from knowing Chinto was not eaten alive was short-lived.
"Why did you leave your brother?" Mando's dad growled.
"I came to get help."
He was sent to his room, and then his dad came in and spanked him.
"Don't you ever leave your brother again, no matter what!" Big Mando said.
"But I thought Buddy was trying to kill him!"
"If your brother is ever getting hurt or killed, you stay there and help him — even if it means you getting killed. That's what a man does."
His dad was young but wise in matters of honor. Mando struggled to understand. It didn't make sense. Why should he and his brother both die? But the lesson ate at him. He began to grasp the concept of loyalty, not only toward his family but toward his closest friends, whom he would come to love like family. Having their backs at all costs, through thick and thin, no matter what. Even if you both died.
He learned the lesson fast, because whenever Dad was locked up, Lil Mando became the man of the house. It was a responsibility the boy enjoyed, but when something went wrong, he got the blame. Even if his dad was home, when Chinto messed up, Mando was to blame. And when he was to blame, he got an ass whooping.
He started off getting spanked with a belt, then graduated to an extension cord or branches from a tree. Once, on a visit to see family in San Diego, they crossed over to Tijuana, Mexico. After his dad bought the kids candies and toys, the boys felt very clever when they talked him into buying them a souvenir whip, the kind the charros use in the rodeos. The whip became another tool for discipline. The pain from the beatings was unbearable, but if Mando cried he was spanked more because boys ain't supposed to cry.
Mando didn't hold this against his dad. His many cousins — with thirteen aunts and uncles on his father's side alone, he had a boatload of them — all knew the same kind of punishment. It was normal in his neighborhood, and he didn't complain. In fact, part of him understood it, because it was their volatile tempers that united Mando and his dad. Sometimes Mando found himself slipping across a thin line into a rage so pure and consuming it made him cry uncontrollably, and the faint birthmark on his forehead would turn so red with blood you'd think it was about to catch fire.
It wasn't long before he had the chance to prove he'd learned his father's lesson on loyalty. Mando, Chinto, and their cousins were climbing a pine tree next to Grandma's house. His little brother wanted to reach the top. Mando told him no, but Chinto continued to climb. A branch snapped and the boy fell, landing right on his Uncle Tony's transmission jack. Chinto's forehead hit the metal, and it looked as if his whole head split open.
Mando scrambled down the tree. This time, he made sure to stay by the side of his bleeding, wailing brother while the cousins ran to tell his dad. They took Chinto to Natividad hospital, where he had to have stitches but was OK. The grown-ups accused Mando of pushing his brother out of the tree, and he got spanked again. He told himself he just couldn't win.
* * *
Big Mando was a slender but powerful man whose fists flew quick as hummingbirds when the occasion called for it. He liked to hang with the homeboys at the intersection of Madeira and East Market streets, where to this day a pair of rickety open-air markets sprawls onto the sidewalks, their shelves packed with rows of tangerine, scarlet, and green. It's the freshest produce in an area known for fresh produce. They say that on this corner the gangs of Salinas were born.
The fruit stands were a hallmark of the unincorporated, ramshackle area east of town known as El Alisal. For decades, the district was a mix of shacks, unpaved roads, and seasonal housing for the valley's migrant farmers whose ranks through the twentieth century included poor whites — John Steinbeck's famous Okies — followed by Filipinos, Mexican immigrants, and Mexican Americans.
To the dismay of many a Salinas police officer and the city's old guard, the Alisal was annexed by Salinas in 1963, the year Big Mando was born. A lot of folks weren't happy about it — the town already had one impoverished, tough neighborhood. A few blocks north of the police station, Chinatown had long attracted whores, johns, drunks, cardsharps, pimps, and junkies of all ethnicities from across the county. In the early 1960s, six Salinas cops tried to arrest two men in a Chinatown knife fight, and some two hundred residents poured out of the bars to fend off the officers. News reports from the time said one man couldn't stop kicking the cops and had to be put in a padded cell, where he kept right on kicking.
The Alisal, in contrast, had sprung up almost by accident when hundreds of the Oklahoma emigrés memorialized in The Grapes of Wrath arrived in a valley unable or unwilling to house them. Their shacks and sheds were slowly replaced with bungalows and apartments as the workforce changed. The poor whites moved up and out, and the Alisal became browner. Big Mando's family, originally from Michoacán, joined throngs of Mexicans who moved here to work the fields. In the 1960s and '70s, the district became known as the East Side, and well-intentioned but overcrowded apartment projects sprouted, their names soon becoming synonymous with prominent gang factions: Acosta Plaza, Las Casitas, La Posada, Los Padres, El Gabilan.
Big Mando, a father at age seventeen, settled his fledgling family near Fremont Street and Madeira. On the fruit-stand corner, he and the guys hung around at day's end. Like working men everywhere, they drank, got rowdy, and fought. It became their corner, a place to laugh and carouse after a day in the fields.
The youths became known as the Fruit Standers. They were the sons of Mexican immigrants, born in the United States and raised in Salinas, and as they defended their humble corner they resented the flood of new arrivals from México who accepted the lowest wages and the worst work in the fields. Agriculture in the valley and the hospitality industry around Monterey Bay had grown dramatically, along with the county's demand for cheaper labor.
As native-born American citizens, it was easy for the Fruit Standers to look down on the old-country laborers who crowded their town. On the other hand, the land of their birth treated them as foreigners. The Fruit Standers were caught between two worlds, one run by the white good old boys who, after generations of Mexicans had put food on their tables, still treated them like busboys at the American banquet. The other world was a painful reminder of who their parents were and the rural poverty they fled, a memory reborn every day in the faces of dark-skinned newcomers who threatened the only thing the Fruit Standers dared call their own: their Salinas, their valley.
In the spectrum of US assimilation, Big Mando and the Alisal youths were trapped somewhere between the ranchero-hick, fresh-faced paisas from México and the slick pachuco style of L.A. In the Fruit Standers' eyes, those two disparate groups from the south merged into a common enemy: Los Sureños, the Southerners.
By the mid-'70s, Big Mando's friends became the first Norteño street gang in town to defend the north from its invaders. They called it Salinas East Marqueta, and it was the heir apparent of the Fruit Standers from East Market Street. The seven young Chicanos who founded SEM — Big Mando was one — saw the clique as a way to defend their corner and their dignity from out-of-towners, as well as from the authorities, the system, and the Man.
"When we first got together in SEM, it was for protection, it was for unity, to back ourselves up against injustices being done to us," Big Mando would later say. In the fight for their identity and rights, the SEMsters drew inspiration from the United Farm Workers and Chicano and Black Power movements. But the struggle against a vague establishment oppressor quickly took a back burner as the Sureño threat became the group's priority. SEM had transformed into a criminal gang that used civil rights jargon to lure youngsters into what they called the Cause.
The Norteños' Cause was not La Causa of the farmworkers and Chicano civil rights workers; it was a thuggish concept of uniting to beat down the perceived invasion of Sureños. SEM grew to include more than a hundred members and was recognized by everyone from local cops to federal investigators as the oldest and largest Norteño gang, and one of the most vicious. In prisons all over the state, inmates saw SEM tattooed across muscular chests or furtively scratched into walls, marks of Salinas pride and resilience.
After Big Mando's first prison term, he quit the delinquent life and enrolled in college. To support his young family, he worked in the fields as his parents had. But he found it easier to sell marijuana and speed — a few hours on the streets and he'd make more than the wages earned from days of backbreaking field work. So that's what he did. College could wait — by the time he turned eighteen, he had to support a wife and two sons. A daughter was soon to follow.
When his oldest son turned six, Big Mando decided he needed to teach him to be a fighter capable of defending his mother and siblings. Dad and an uncle in the National Guard took Lil Mando, his little brother, and a young cousin to a field under the wide-open sky of Moss Landing, the swamplands that cradle Monterey Bay.
Excerpted from Blood in the Fields by Julia Reynolds. Copyright © 2014 Julia Reynolds. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
Map: The Salinas Valley and Environs xii
Nuestra Familia Organizational Chart xiii
On Sourcing xv
Prologue: Pelican Bay xxv
Book 1 Emergence 1997-1998
1 Lil Scrap Killas 3
2 Little Man 13
3 The Artichoke Field 19
4 Good Gangs 26
5 Family Values 31
6 Preston 42
7 The Informant 50
8 Gangster School 59
9 The Mission 64
10 XIV Till Eternity 72
11 Full Sixty 75
12 State of Grace 81
13 Overt Acts 84
14 Basic Training 93
15 Soledad Street 96
Book 2 The O 1998-2001
16 You Gots to Kill 107
17 Breaking Huerito 112
18 Brothers 122
19 Rico's Way 131
20 All Creased Up 136
21 Breaking Regina 142
22 Second Chances 152
23 Lizard 156
24 Chinatown 159
25 Seeds of Empire 166
26 The Tortilla Factory 171
27 Spookio's Way 175
28 The Black Widow 179
29 Original Gangster 190
30 The King of Chinatown 197
31 Wiring Lizard 204
32 The Murder at Cap's Saloon 207
33 Oklahoma City 211
34 The Big Homie 214
35 The Confession 222
Book 3 Empire 2002-2007
36 Rico's Time Card 229
37 Northern Exposure 232
38 The Deal 241
39 The Coup 251
40 The General's Visitor 256
41 The Road to Delano 263
42 Heeker Pass 271
43 Down in the Hole 275
44 Salvation 279
45 Hitting Pablo 283
46 Clemency 289
47 Mount Madonna 291
48 The Virgin at Pinto Lake 295
49 The Evidence of Things Unseen 301
50 Fathers 305
Epilogue: Cease-Fire 309
Source Notes 317