Nuestra Familia, Our Family

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Latino communities in California and across the United States have been devastated by a growing trend of youth gang violence. Homicide is the second leading cause of death for Latino youth in America. And while Latinos make up about 33 percent of California's population, they account for 44 percent of all homicide victims in the state. According to the FBI's 2005 National Gang Threat Assessment, "Hispanic gang membership is on the rise. These gangs are migrating and expanding their jurisdictions throughout the country. Identification and differentiation of these gangs pose new obstacles for law enforcement, especially in rural communities."

Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) producers Oriana Zill de Granados and Julia Reynolds began their exploration into the epidemic of gun violence in Latino communities in early 2003. Their research led them to Salinas, California, the idyllic valley known as "Steinbeck Country." Few outsiders would imagine that California's dusty farm towns are home to violent gangs that rule the streets with high-powered weaponry. There were more than 20 gang-related homicides in the small city in both 2004 and 2003, and hundreds of additional non-fatal shootings.

In Salinas and other California towns, sophisticated prison gang leaders orchestrate the street violence from behind bars in the state's maximum-security prisons. FBI agents have mounted an attack to curb the gang activity, but in their zeal for prosecution, they may have crossed ethical boundaries regarding the use of criminal informants.

More than three years of research and filming resulted in exclusive interviews with prison gang members, never-before-seen surveillance footage of the Nuestra Famillia (NF) prison gang in action, footage of an FBI gang informant as he appears to authorize a murder, and surveillance video of the actual murder as it takes place. Just as compelling, Nuestra Familia features interviews with family members and gang members opening up about their lives, painting a haunting picture rarely seen by the public.

Nuestra Familia, Our Family tracks the history of the Norteño street gang in Salinas and its links to the prison-based NF. Former prison inmates and NF members detail the rigidly organized structure of this prison gang and how its leaders are able to operate with impunity from the lockdown section of Pelican Bay, California's highest security prison. From there, NF leaders control the activities of thousands of Norteño gang members on the streets, and manage the systems for teaching young recruits and collecting taxes from gang activity. This military-style organization keeps an eye on everything from who gets killed on the street to how guns are distributed among street soldiers. As Salinas' young men cycle in and out of juvenile hall and prison, they are literally schooled and nurtured into a life of commitment to the NF -- a commitment that is enforced by blood.

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The documentary also lays out the untold history of the NF -- what street gang members call "the cause" -- which, ironically, originated in the prison-based Chicano pride movement and the Central Valley's agricultural fields.

This program is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting, Latino Public Broadcasting, and KQED Public Television, with major funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.