The Puerto Rican gang Ñetas (La Asociación ÑETA) is strong on the island as well as in Puerto Rican communities in the Northeast – in and outside of prisons. It was born in Puerto Rico’s Oso Blanco prison in the 1970s when independence for the island was a significant political movement. They claimed to be a prisoner’s rights group. The group originally formed under Carlos Torres Irriarte, who was murdered in prison in 1984 by members of the rival gang G-27. Retribution was swift and bloody, starting with a massive riot and the murder and dismemberment of the leader. Ñetas and G-27 have been bitter rivals ever since.
The gang’s brutal tactics are legendary, and helped to keep rival gangs at bay as well as to recruit new members. Some say members get together on the 30th of every month to commemorate the death of their founder by chanting “Ñetas, Ñetas”.
By the 1990s, Ñetas had spread to New York’s streets and jails, then quickly moved to New Jersey, particularly Trenton. In New York, a woman, Joanna “La Madrina” Pimentel, was head of the state organization of Ñeta chapters for about a decade. There are also chapters in Spain and Central and South America.
The structure of Ñetas varies from place to place but generally consists of an organizer/leader with individuals elected to positions such as education coordinator, director of discipline, etc. Numerous soldiers populate the lowest level. Some say the chapter leaders are elected by popular vote, and that there is a probationary period that new associates must endure before being accepted as full members.
Gang members are likely to have the name “Ñetas” tatooed on their bodies or the symbol of a hand with first two fingers crossed (similar to the good luck sign) and a red, white, and blue ribbon around the wrist to designate the Puerto Rican flag. Alternately they may tattoo a black heart with the letter “N” in the center. They frequently carry or wear a multicolored rosary. Certain prayers may be said during initiations and gang ceremonies.
Members are most often Hispanic males but women are allowed as well. All swear to uphold the organization’s list of 25 “norms”, which were rewritten in the mid-1990s. Norms include:
Ñetas were once allied with the Latin Kings, the strongest and largest Hispanic gang on the East Coast but some chapters are now rivals due to the Latin Kings trying to recruit members of Ñetas away. There is significant competition for drug trafficking territory, which is how the Ñetas make money. Other crimes such as gun trafficking, robberies, murder-for-hire, and human trafficking are other sources of income but most aren’t as profitable as selling drugs.