The Nuestra Familia gang is a highly structured, sophisticated criminal group that operates inside and outside of prison, rules underground economies in much of agricultural California, and is responsible for hundreds of murders. With recently forged ties to Mexican drug cartels, Nuestra Familia now controls the flow of illegal drugs through most Northern California cities.

The gang has an immense impact on the lives of millions residing in California and the West. More than half the homicides in the Golden State are gang-related, and in agricultural cities like Salinas, nearly all murders stem from gangs and their warfare. A rural California without gangs would be a world almost entirely free of violence. Sadly, that is not the case. One only has to attend the funeral of a six-year-old struck by a gang bullet to see how this plague affects entire communities, how it replaces hope and vitality with fear and cynicism.

The Nuestra Familia and its affiliated Norteño gangs are responsible for beautiful Monterey County leading the state in youth homicide rates. Many experts consider the Nuestra Familia to be the nation’s most sophisticated prison gang, and the FBI acknowledges that the NF is spreading into other parts of the country, in part as an unforeseen side effect of ongoing federal prosecutions that are sending the gang’s leaders to New York, Pennsylvania, Florida, Louisiana, Kentucky, and Georgia.

Blood in the Fields intimately follows the lives of young people so deeply entrenched in “the life” they see no way out, even as they struggle to conserve those threads of humanity they still possess. Fathers, sons, and the women who love them hand over their lives to the gang as they search to find family of any kind in a modern but impoverished rural America.

Like many of the people described in the book, I have come to love Salinas and its contradictions. Every afternoon, the city’s East Side fills with the rich, meaty smells of Michoacán cuisine. The laughter of toddlers and grandmothers rings across wood-fenced alleys as field workers head home. The valley’s days end with a shank of sunlight touching the Gabilan Mountains. To the west, the sun breaks underneath the clouds so they’re black on top but heat-white below, and rows of cauliflower leaves glow as if they’re on fire.

Then darkness settles and the shooting begins.

I believe the killing in these streets and fields will not stop unless the logic of the gangsters’ world is known and much, much better understood.


This interactive timeline charts key Nuestra Familia events during the years covered in the book.
Spoiler alert: While much of the story of Blood in the Fields is not reflected in the timeline, some readers may prefer not to know anything until after they've read the book.



This chart reflects the structure of the gang during the years Blood in the Fields takes place. Although the names of the middle and lower echelons have since changed, the structure remains the same. Nuestra Raza members are today known as Norteños, while Norteño street gang members are now called Northerners. Some say this change was deliberately concocted to confuse law enforcement, while others say the Mesa feared Nuestra Raza was gaining too much power. In Blood in the Fields, I stick to the traditional names as seen in this chart.

In addition, after Operation Black Widow split the gang’s leadership, there are now two functioning Mesas, one in Pelican Bay State Prison and the other at the USP Florence ADMAX prison in Florence, Colorado. Neighboring street regiments may answer to either of the two Mesas, causing new friction within the gang.

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Map of Salinas ValleyMost of this story takes place in the beautiful Salinas Valley and Monterey Bay Area — an unlikely setting for the kind of violence most of us think only occurs in inner cities. The city of Salinas is the heart of the valley and this book. It's the birthplace of John Steinbeck, and the area's rich farmland is the source of most of America's homegrown fresh produce. Sadly, the workers who toil over these crops are often the victims of gang members in armed robberies.
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