The Norteños, also Norte, are affiliated with Nuestra Familia (Our Family), a coalition of traditional Latino gangs in Northern California. A member of these gangs is a Norteño (male) or Norteña (female); based on Spanish usage. In the late 1960s, Mexican-American inmates of the California state prison system began to separate into two rival groups, Norteños (northerners) and Sureños (southerners), according to the locations of their hometowns; the north-south dividing line was near Bakersfield. Part of the motivation for the split was the desire of the Norteños to be independent of "La Eme” a.k.a. the Mexican Mafia. As with many other gangs, Norteños have been involved in trafficking of drugs and contraband, and armed conflict with other gangs and with police. According to police investigators, a requirement for full membership in Nuestra Familia is committing at least one murder for the gang. Federal law enforcement agencies, long unable to infiltrate the group, began to step up their investigations in the late 1990s.
In 2000 and 2001, 22 members were indicted on racketeering charges, including several who were allegedly serving as high-ranking gang leaders while confined in Pelican Bay. Thirteen of the defendants pleaded guilty; the other cases are still ongoing. Two of the defendants face the death penalty for ordering murders related to the drug trade. The largest of the federal investigations, Operation Black Widow, caused controversy when it became public that some gang members were serving as FBI informants while still continuing to organize violent crimes. Norteño emblems and clothing are based on the color red. A typical Norteño outfit might include a red belt, red shoes, and red shoelaces. They will also favor sports team apparel that shows their affiliation through symbolism such as the Nebraska Cornhuskers football, UNLV, K-Swiss, and San Francisco 49ers. Norteños may refer to each other by using the term "Ene,” Spanish for the letter "N.” Norteños use the number 14 in tattoos and graffiti because "N" is the fourteenth letter of the alphabet. It is sometimes written as "X4” or in Roman numerals as "XIV". Some Norteños will tattoo themselves with four dots. Norteño derogatorily refers to a Sureño as a "Scrap" or "Sur (Sewer) Rat,” while a Sureño will likewise refer to a Norteño as a "Buster" or "Chap" (Chapete). Norteños also lay claim to images of the Mexican-American labor movement, such as the sombrero, machete, and "Huelga bird,” symbols of the United Farm Workers.