STANISLAUS COUNTY — Editor's Note: The name of a former gang member interviewed for this story has been changed for his protection. The events of his life have been kept intentionally vague for the same reason.
For gang members, jail is a school, a place to learn gang history, politics and economics. But in this school, if they are disciplined, they graduate to a higher status among their peers.
In jail, young gang members also are educated in how to make weapons, what to expect if they are destined for prison and how to communicate with fellow gang members both within the same jail and in prisons around the state.
Jail is where many orders from so-called shot callers are carried out, like assaults or killings of rival gang members or members within the gang who have defected.
The Stanislaus County Jail's majority gang, Norteño, is even referred to as the junior varsity of the Nuestra Familia, a prison gang with which it is associated.
While many members grow up in neighborhoods considered turf by gangs, it isn't until they go to jail that most choose a side northerner or southerner and truly become affiliated. Upon their release, the future crimes they commit are expected to be for the benefit of the gang.
Louis became a northerner when he landed in an out-of-state prison for juveniles. He was just 15 when he was incarcerated for committing a series of property crimes.
"When I got there, there was 30 people from up north, and there was 100 of them (southerners)," he said during a recent in-custody interview. "I was just happy to see somebody I knew."
The dividing line between north and south, Norteño and Sureño, is Delano in Kern County, said James Shelton, gang intelligence deputy for the Stanislaus County Jail.
Like most who gravitate toward their geographical roots, Louis banded together with Norteños for not only protection but "support."
"And that's where it all starts, you feel like you owe somebody something because he shared his soup with you or he had your back when you were getting jumped," Louis said. "You start feeling more and more obligated toward them and before you know it, you feel like you are ready to kill for these guys."
Norteño gang members are mostly housed together in 12-man cells in the downtown jail. "When they are in a 12-man cell and have some northerner youngster from the streets with some Norteño who has been to prison, he is going to be educating this kid about what it takes to become a good Norteño or a good soldier," Shelton said.
The deputy tries to separate the shot callers from the large cells to disrupt or at least slow the flow of information. He houses them in two-man maximum-security cells in the Public Safety Center on Hackett Road in south Modesto.
"Shot callers are born by 'putting in work,' or committing crimes and making money for the gang," Shelton said. "The more dedication and loyalty they show, the more money they make, the more their status increases. Even going to prison will give them more status."
Louis, now a dropout after 20 years as an active gang member, gained notoriety in his early 20s when he assaulted a Sureño shot caller during one of his many stints in prison. "Right then and there, I was in," he said. "Everywhere I landed, in prison in jail, I was in charge."
He went on to be a shot caller, running a regiment for about a year before again being locked up.
Writing a wila, being on 'freeze'
It is the shot callers in jail who do background checks on lower-ranking Norteños and northerners and their associates.
When a northerner enters the jail, he must write a wila, a secret note in tiny letters on a small piece of paper and often transported in the anal cavity, Shelton said.
The inmate will write this essay of sorts about his history, including where he is from and if he's ever been to jail or prison.
The written communication goes to the shot caller, who orders a background check. Until a report comes back and clears the young gang member, he is on "freeze." That means he is accompanied everywhere by two senior gang members to the toilet, the shower, his bunk, never left alone until his name is cleared, Shelton said.
If it isn't, he could be beaten and kicked out of the gang, or worse, depending on the offense. Dischargeable offenses in the Norteño paramilitary-type structure can include failing to pay "taxes" to the gang or carry out orders.
Orders also are communicated through wilas and carried by people entering or leaving jail or prison, handed off in holding cells at court, or in the tunnel between the courthouse and the jail.
What it all boils down to for the Nuestra Familia, Louis said, is money. The soldiers on the streets are expected to sell drugs or stolen property, steal cars, rob people, whatever it takes to generate revenue.
"It's all about money, that's all it is," Louis said. "They want to get out here into the streets and what they call 'secure, establish and maintain' their environment. They do it in the county jail; they do it anywhere they land."
Exactly what portion of a regiment's profit is expected to go to the NF varies. Modesto police Street Gang Unit Sgt. Scott Myers said he arrested a man who made just $20 for committing an armed robbery in which he stole $500.
Louis said people selling drugs are expected to give up 10 percent to 25 percent of their take. "Or else they're going to get you out of there," he said. "And if they got to, they will burn your house down or kill someone or whatever."
Leaders of the 'struggle'
Orders can come from the shot callers, many who are referred to as lieutenants and captains, but the most serious decisions are made by the Nuestra Familia generals, three men who are serving life sentences in Pelican Bay State Prison, Shelton said.
These men, 450 miles from Modesto, have a hand in crime committed on the streets here, and money made from that crime is sent to them to be put on their books so they can buy a few extra privileges from the prison's commissary.
"I say it sarcastically, but it's true, it's a 'struggle' for soups, coffee and chips because that's all them guys get in Pelican Bay," Louis said.
The three generals are referred to as La Mesa of the Nuestra Familia gang, of which there are fewer than 200 members. "It's not meant for everybody to succeed, because if it was, it would be a big family, and in reality, the NF is a small family," Louis said. "The more family members they have, the more people they need to feed."
In jail, new recruits learn the history of the Nuestra Familia and its "struggle" against the Mexican Mafia, the prison gang from which the street gang Sureños are derived. They will learn the 14 bonds of the Norteño gang, like striving for "better education, respect and social status" and defending their "household to the fullest, no matter the consequences."
The recruits record their new knowledge on wilas and are prepared to return to the streets as soldiers making money for the gang.
Louis said he was conditioned to believe that Sureños were a threat whose sole goal was to oppress the "Northern Mexican race."
"As I got deeper and deeper into the gang, they pump you up with all this, what they call education; they educate you on what the struggle is all about," Louis said. "They put it in your head and put it in your head, and before you know it, you start believing these things. You don't really have too much to cross reference what they are saying is true because you just take their word for it, but you are believing all these lies and they are just manipulating you and brainwashing you so that one day you can go out there and support what they believe in."
The Nuestra Familia was started by a group of Latinos from Northern California and former members of the Mexican Mafia who didn't agree with the gang's politics and banded together for protection in prison in the late 1960s, Shelton said. In essence, the gang once was made up of dropouts but grew into its own entity, its "struggle" becoming less relevant as it swelled.
Dropping out of the gang
Louis dropped out recently when he was ordered to commit a crime that would have landed him in prison for life. He walked away.
He said he'd finally had enough. He'd seen fellow Norteños turn on one another, rob one another and kill one another. Over time, it weakened his resolve. What kept him in the gang for so long, he said, was his pride, because he didn't want to be considered a dropout, "a piece of s---" and go into protective custody with all the "weirdos and sex offenders."
But when he finally walked away, Louis said, "I felt like 1,000 pounds lifted off my chest."
Louis, who expects to be released in 2016, is focused on building skills he can use to succeed on the outside. He's trying to develop a better relationship with his adolescent children, lamenting his biggest regret is that they look at him as a stranger.
Louis knows the odds are against him and he very likely has a target on his back.
"I know it's an uphill climb, but I know I can do it," he said. "After everything I've done, all the sadness and the madness, I finally feel at peace."
Bee staff writer Erin Tracy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2366. Follow her on Twitter, @ModestoBeeCrime.