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A California cop has learned to tell the difference between a true Nebraska fan and a red-clad gang member.

And some Bay Area high schools have banned Big Red jerseys and related apparel.

The reason? The Norteños, a Mexican street gang in northern California, have taken a liking to Husker gear. It's red -- their color -- and it usually has a big "N" -- for Norteños, in their world.

But they're not fans, says a Tulare County, Calif., gang unit task force member.

And they know little -- if anything -- about what the Cornhuskers football team is doing, said detective Steve Sanchez.

"When you ask them about (quarterback) Taylor Martinez or their record, they don't know anything about that," Sanchez said. "They have zero knowledge of the team."

Gangs have long worn sportswear to represent their groups.

The Latin Kings use the Los Angeles Kings hockey team logos, multiple gangs use Michigan's M logo for "murder" and now, Arizona State's redesigned pitchfork logo is being used by a Chicago gang, the Satan's Disciples.

ASU currently is taking legal action to stop the gang from using its trademarks.

Michael Stephens, the University of Nebraska's assistant athletic director for licensing and marketing, said he was aware of the gang sportswear trend, but didn't know NU's team logos were in the mix.

"We don't endorse or condone use of our brand with gang affiliation," he said. "Obviously our products are in the marketplace, and we can't control who is purchasing them."

"We'll keep an eye on the situation and do what's best for Nebraska."

For now, he doesn't think Nebraska will take legal action like Arizona State, he said.

In addition to distributing drugs like meth and cocaine, the Norteños are well known for violence.

They've been involved in assaults, carjackings, home invasions, robberies and homicides, according to the FBI's National Gang Threat Assessment study.

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The Nebraska "N" is among many of the gang's symbols. They also use XIV, or 14, because N is the 14th letter in the alphabet.

San Francisco 49ers gear also is a favorite, and they wear University of Nevada, Las Vegas gear. Gang members say UNLV stands for "Us Norteños Love Violence."

It's unknown just how prevalent the Norteños are, but their larger parent organization, la Nuestra Familia, has as many as 40,000 members. The Norteños started as a prison gang and has filtered into the streets.

So how can a real Husker fan avoid being confused with a gang member on the West Coast?

"You can't," said Charlie Johnson, FBI Special Agent on the gang squad in San Francisco. "It's a problem in the gang world. You wear the wrong colors in the wrong place at the wrong time and things could happen.

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"And it has."

The gang symbols are so prevalent that University of Nebraska jerseys and related sports apparel are banned in some California high schools.

"What we look for in dress codes with gangs is a preponderance of evidence. A Nebraska sweatshirt alone isn't going to do it -- it's that, plus red shoe laces, belt, the number 14 and identified behaviors," said principal Amy McNamara of James Logan High School. "It's about student safety. We don't want to see them shot or jumped ... because they are wearing something."

DeJon Gomes, a former Husker safety who went to high school at Logan High, said there was a lot of gang activity before and after school.

He never had problems with gangs when he returned home on breaks and worked out at the high school in his Husker gear.

"It's about who you hang out with, and it wasn't really in my neighborhood or anything," Gomes said. "I just work out with my friends and didn't spend too much time out on the streets or anything like that."

A president of alumni group in California, saw a story about the gang and the Nebraska connection years ago.

"I thought, 'Oh God. This is exactly what we need,'" the man said. "I've always worried about some idiot coming up to me with my Nebraska hat and starting something.

"It hasn't happened yet, and I don't want it to."

Reach Jordan Pascale at 402-473-7120, jpascale@journalstar.com or follow him @LJSPascale.

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