The Sureños are the umbrella organization for Hispanic street and prison gangs united under the Mexican Mafia.
The purpose of the alliance of gangs is primarily to make more money for the drug lords, who are mostly prisoners in state penitentiaries. The gangs began in the prisons and on the streets as a way to protect ethnic groups from physical violence by others. The Mexican Mafia was a prison gang first, to protect Hispanic prisoners against other groups that had organized around the same time, specifically the Black Guerrilla Family and the Aryan Brotherhood.
The Sureños network is how the Mexican Mafia operates both inside prisons and on the streets. Law enforcement estimates that there are 50,000 members of the Sureños network in the Los Angeles area, active in 500 gangs, all serving the Mexican Mafia.
The Sureños are sometimes aligned with the Norteños (a smaller and less powerful network) formed by the Nuestra Familia. Although the two competing organizations may battle, they have also been known to cooperate for drug profits.
Sureños members are allowed to keep their local gang affiliation, so most will have a tattoo designating their own gang, followed by or separate from a Sureños tattoo. Sureños tattoos may include the number 13, often in Roman style, “XIII” or as “X3.”
Members of the Sureños call themselves “Southsiders” or “SS” and use some indigenous Central American language. Sureños gang signs mimic the letter “S.”
Sureños gang initiation varies from drawing blood from a rival gang member to a beatdown by other members of the gang.
The Mexican Mafia, also known as “La Eme,” created the Sureños as a confederation of gangs to ensure cooperation across historical boundaries between various gangs to solidify profits from drug sales while leaders were in prison.
The Sureños, centered in Los Angeles are allied with the Sinaloa Cartel from Mexico, to support drug trafficking. In 2015 state and federal law enforcement teamed up to arrest 22 people and seize 500 pounds of methamphetamine in Contra Costa County that came from Mexico.
The Sureños are spread across the country and can be found in all urban centers.
Gang styles of speaking, dressing, and communicating have been adopted by celebrities and made mainstream, or even enviable. By depicting gangsters with fancy cars, sexy girlfriends, and big mansions in movies, on television and in video games, youthful observers often seek to emulate “thug life” – which makes recruiting the next generation easy.
Illegal immigrants or those immigrantsfound guilty of a felony were often deported to Mexico and Central American countries in the 1980s. It’s common knowledge that the vicious gang MS-13 spread this way internationally, but Surenos did as well. Whether in prison or on the street, Hispanic immigrants are ripe to become gang members for the safety in numbers, assistance in getting settled, and for the sake of family ties.
Sureños gang members have been identified in all branches of the U.S. armed forces despite the disqualification for anyone with a criminal past. Law enforcement officials are concerned about gang affiliations on military bases and exposure to training and tactics used by the military may be creating stronger and smarter street gangs that are better equipped to fight law enforcement.
In early 2018, ten Surenos were arrested in a raid that solved seven murders in the San Francisco area covering a decade.
It took a coordinated effort by state and federal law enforcement to investigate, document, and round up the Surenos involved. Charges included drug trafficking, assault, possession of illegal firearms, and robberies. Felony-level charges for violent acts will likely send them to a maximum-security prison, especially if they are repeat offenders, and in maximum security prison, they will be in good company with many other Surenos, learning to run their territories from behind bars.