gang members have been warned not to wear the nike cortez

After a prominent gang leader instructed members not to wear Nike Cortez sneakers to avoid police attention, i-D explores why and how gangs adopt specific sneakers as symbols of allegiance.

by André-Naquian Wheeler
Sep 29 2017, 10:15pm

Photography Douglas C. Pizac-Pool/Getty Images

First released in 1972, the Cortez is one of Nike's most popular sneakers. The style was recently re-launched and has a vintage vibe with a thin sole and muted colorways. The Cortez harks back to the shoes worn by basketball players when peach baskets were used as hoops and the balls were made of leather. But the shoe has taken on a new meaning and functionality outside of sports. The notorious U.S. and Central American gang MS-13 has adopted the Nike Cortez as part of its uniform, functioning as a sign of allegiance. The shoe has become so closely linked to the transnational gang, in fact, that police in gang areas commonly assume that anyone wearing the shoe is involved with MS-13. This summer, two men were beaten to death by gang members because one of them was wearing Cortezs.

During his recent indictment, Edwin Manica Flores, a prominent MS-13 leader, said he instructed members to stop wearing the Cortez in order to avoid attention from the police, Newsweek reports. "Dressed like that, the enemy can see you, the police can arrest you, and boom, to El Salvador," said Flores, who, after being arrested by U.S. officials, is now in the custody of El Salvador.

Why are sneakers like the Adidas Superstar, the Converse All-Star, and various Rebook styles so frequently adopted by gangs? It's rumored that Mexican gangs originally took to wearing the Cortez because of its name — an ode to the 16th-century Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortés, who led the conquest of the Aztec Empire. "For generations, gangs have been using athletic gear, and caps, and logos to represent their factions or gangs," Ronald Barrett, a gang-prevention expert, said in a recent interview. "It's used for intimidation and it's used for recruitment."

The Cortez isn't the only sneaker with an inadvertent gang affiliation. The Adidas Superstar is associated with much more than Run-D.M.C. and the 80s. In the early 00s, the Crips took to wearing the classic shoe and turned Adidas into an acronym for "All Day I Disrespect All Slobs" among the gang's members. Creating new meanings for brand names is actually pretty common. Black gangs turned Nike into an acronym for "Niggas Insane Killing Everybody." And L.A. schools were forced to ban students in the early 90s from wearing British Knights after the Crips adopted the shoe and made the "BK" logo into an acronym for "Blood Killer."

There are efforts to make sneakers neutral again. Kendrick Lamar has made anti-gang violence a chief theme of his work, featuring a gang-infested L.A. neighborhood in his "ELEMENT" visual and rapping "if Pirus and Crips all got along / they'd probably gun me down by the end of this song" on his debut album. In 2015, he partnered with Reebok to release the Ventilator in a new red-and-blue colorway, bringing together the two competing gangs' colors.Will other brands follow Reebok's example and address the dual meanings their shoes have taken on?

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