Detained Immigrants, at the Mercy of a Prison Gang War

The color of their uniforms is the only thing that differentiates them from the members of "Nuestra Familia" and the "Mexican Mafia"

An immigrant detainee at the Adelanto Detention Center.
An immigrant detainee at the Adelanto Detention Center.
Foto: Aurelia Ventura / Impremedia/La Opinion

Those who come to Adelanto, the largest jail for migrants on the West Coast, are classified into three categories by authorities: “Northerners”, “Southerners” — and the rest.

Beyond the colors of their uniforms (blue, orange and red) assigned to them based on their criminal history, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) must separate members of two rival gangs, “Northerners” the northern California gang members, and “Southerners”, from the south side of the state.

It is the strategy used by penitentiaries of this entity to reduce violent clashes that have even concluded with fatalities. The battle between these bands has lasted almost half a century.

Thus, the undocumented people who are not affiliated with those groups end up in the middle of their war.

“When they come to each unit they already know who ‘Northerners’ or ‘Southerners’ are, so we try to separate them and if they do not say after they fight, we already know why,” said Oscar Gonzalez, supervisor of ICE at Adelanto Detention Center, managed by the private company GEO.

There is no shortage of fights between enemies, but violence has never escalated, says ICE.

In the prison of Adelanto, a town north of San Bernardino and 85 miles from Los Angeles, the convicts with the worst reputation (committing murder, rape or kidnapping) wear red uniforms and can only live with orange suit detainees, convicted of crimes of medium severity, such as domestic violence or physical aggression.

These prisoners, says ICE, cannot share a cell with — for example — those who wait for a political asylum application to be approved, wearing a blue uniform.

“If this were a family, red would be teenagers and blue, young children. Red ones are cleverer in the criminal process and can take advantage or are a bad influence,” said Jorge Field, deputy field office of ICE in Los Angeles.

Northerners and Southerners

Since 1968, Hispanic gang members in the California prison system are separated according to their places of origin.

And then the prison gangs “Nuestra Familia” and its affiliate, “Northerners” emerged to confront the “Mexican Mafia” and shock its troops, otherwise known as “Southerners”.

Members of the first gang use the number 14, by the location of the letter N in the alphabet that stands for “Our Family (Nuestra Familia).” The latter are identified with 13, referring to the letter M, for “Mexican Mafia” or “La Eme.”

Over the years, dozens of members of both gangs have been killed inside and outside prisons.  The power of the “Southerners,” however, is greater because they also have a presence in Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas and are connected to Mexican cartels.

A few days ago, in Adelanto, a detainee with a grim face did not hide a tattoo on his chest with the word “Locos” identifying him with a gang of Southern California.

“Part of the classification is done based on what ICE and GEO officers see, the questions we ask them, seeing tattoos, seeing his criminal record, is a bit of everything,” said Field.

It is unclear how many detainees in ICE prisons are gang members.

It is estimated that there are more than 800 gang members in the California prison system, some 900 partners, more than 300 inactive members and about 1,000 who left that lifestyle.

Game Between Refugees

Recent waves of refugees from Africa, Asia, Central America and the Caribbean meet at the immigration detention center in Adelanto, where they can be seen sharing in the dining room, bedrooms and a soccer field.

“Here!  Do it!” shouted an African in Spanish who days ago played in a soccer match disputed by two equipment formed by Hispanic immigrants.

In the stands, a group of black detainees enjoyed the sport competition, which was performed at about 100 Fahrenheit degrees.

When returning to the dorms, a Central American young person said “I am good” in an English variant, typical of a region of Africa. Before him, in the row, a black man denied his claim.

“They already grabbed the language,” said an official from ICE.

Refugees from Africa, Asia, Central America and the Caribbean meet at the Immigration Detention Center in Adelanto.  (Photo: Aurelia Ventura/La Opinion)

There were about 12 Africans in the lower-risk inmates unit in Adelanto last week. They are representative of those who have come to Tijuana with the idea of seeking political asylum in the United States.

“It’s like a roller coaster, at a time there are many from Asia or Africa, and then again, from Central America and Mexico, it goes up and down,” said Field about the migrant groups.

With people from more than 70 countries on an ordinary day, Adelanto often resembles the Tower of Babel.

Women detained in the Detention Center Adelanto, managed by the private company GEO.  (Photo: Aurelia Ventura/La Opinion)

Women and Zumba

There are two downcast women in a cell painted in a green tone that infuses hope.

They wear the clothes they had when they came to the women area in the Detention Center for immigrants in Adelanto, in desert San Bernardino. They are waiting for the bus that will take them to the border with Mexico, where their American dream once began.

“They will be deported,” said an official of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) across the thick glass that allows the cell to see these young and short people with dark skin.

Since February, this center that once housed inmates in the custody of the state began receiving migrant women, who approached the sentry box requesting political asylum, those who had outstanding accounts with ICE and the ones who are deported to their countries once they purged a sentence.

They are divided into two units according to their cases and offenses committed. There were 190 women, a few days ago, (11% of detained immigrants) on this site operated by the private company GEO.

“We needed the space, we had no place for women who committed serious crimes before,” said Jorge Field, deputy field office of ICE in Los Angeles about the new sector in Adelanto. “Almost in the whole country is difficult to find space for women,” he said.

This group, he said, not only brought challenges, but the opportunity to develop recreational programs like Zumba classes, popular aerobic exercise routine that uses Latin rhythms.

“The idea is to keep them busy because they spend a long time locked up,” said Joshua Johnson, head of security for GEO in Adelanto, the largest jail for immigrants in the Pacific.

But not all detainees get involved in that activity, says Johnson, noting that newcomers, like African, did not know that dancing was part of a fitness discipline

In Adelanto, immigrants who have fled from violence share a space.  (Photo:   Aurelia Ventura/La Opinion)

Sharing a Space

In Adelanto, immigrants who have fled from violence share a space and are asked to wear blue uniforms.  Their beds are in a subdivided area, without doors or walls, which gives the appearance of being in a shelter for evacuees from fire.

However, the harsh rules, female guards, insipid food, controlled visits and access doors almost always closed remind them they are detained.

“They treat to Us very badly, shout to us too much”, said a 50 year-old woman when she saw the reporters coming. She wore an orange uniform, indicating that she committed a crime of medium seriousness (as stores or home robberies).

ICE emphasizes that, while the standard of conduct is strict, the rights of the accused are respected.

“The female population is more bearable than the male, just in the way as they approach you, there is not so much aggression,” says Johnson observing a line of women who were about to have breakfast.

That noon the menu was chicken with frijoles, potatoes and vegetables.

Not even the women who are dressed in red (for having committed serious crimes) have a face so hard like the men in that category.

In a waiting room, one of them showed its more angelical expression when seeing its small son that it visited it.

“Give me a hug!” implored the flushed mother with several tattoos on her forearms.