LOS ANGELES -- A Southern California street gang's campaign against blacks began during a meeting at a local park in 1992.
From there, prosecutors contend, the predominately Latino street gang went on the attack in Azusa, east of Los Angeles.
Graffiti with racial epithets began appearing around the city, including "Get out n...." sprayed on garage doors of some black residents. Gang members allegedly beat up blacks they found in their "territory," telling one man "We hate n... in Azusa. This is Azusa."
Over the course of 20 years, blacks were assaulted, chased and robbed, their property vandalized, in a "crime spree to drive African-Americans out of the city of Azusa," said U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr.
Authorities announced Tuesday that a federal grand jury has indicted 51 people allegedly associated with the Azusa 13 street gang in a campaign that prosecutors described as "terrorizing" blacks in the suburban San Gabriel Valley city of 44,000.
Azusa police Chief Robert Garcia said the campaign was partly motivated by race prejudice. But he said it also grew from orders from Mexican Mafia gang leaders to organize their drug business by "eliminating competition so they can have a monopoly on drug sales," Garcia said. "Usually a street gang member doesn't get an original idea; it comes from someone higher up."
According to the indictment, one Azusa 13 member actually drew up a "business plan" aimed at monopolizing drug sales in Azusa, which included taxing drug dealers, protecting those who paid and attacking those who did not and destroying their businesses.
But authorities said the campaign went beyond drug deals to innocent black residents who the gang allegedly harassed because of their race.
"We're brainwashed to think that if we let a black family in, then their (gang) cousins are going to come from Compton," said one ex-Azusa gang member who grew up in the neighborhood and requested anonymity in an interview Tuesday.
The 24-count indictment is the latest in several prosecutions involving allegations that Latino gangs in Southern California attacked blacks in an effort to get them to move out of neighborhoods they controlled. Many of these incidents occurred in the late 1990s and early 2000s in neighborhoods with a history of gang problems.
A few years ago, federal prosecutors charged members of a Latino gang with a campaign to push blacks out of the unincorporated Florence-Firestone neighborhood in the Los Angeles area. The campaign allegedly resulted in 20 homicides over a decade. In the Harbor Gateway district of Los Angeles, a Latino gang was accused of targeting blacks including 14-year-old Cheryl Green, whose death became a rallying point. Members of the Avenues, a Latino gang in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Highland Park, were convicted for a series of assaults and killings in the early 1990s.
Prosecutors do not allege any racially motivated killings. But the indictment describes a climate of fear that the campaign created in a city in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains far from the urban core. The city has a large Latino and white population, but blacks account for less than 1,500 of the city's residents.
The Azusa indictment provides a detailed look at how the gang ran its drug business and why it decided to target blacks.
Tax revenue collected from drug dealers was sent to a Mexican Mafia member, which the indictment identifies only as "Mexican Mafia Member 1," a man then incarcerated in Leavenworth, Kansas. When the member died in 2008, revenue was then sent to two other unidentified Mexican Mafia members, according to the indictment. The indictment does not identify "Mexican Mafia member 1." But a reputed Mexican Mafia member from Azusa, Ruben Rodriguez, was killed in Kansas in 2008 while on parole.
Controlling the neighborhood for the mafia members were a series of gang members appointed as "keyholders" to the neighborhood -- also known as "llaveros" -- who would communicate the mafia's bidding to the streets and make sure orders were carried out.
The campaign allegedly began with meetings at Pioneer Park in 1992 and years following in which gang members were urged to get rid of blacks who were then moving into apartments in Azusa.
At one meeting, prosecutors alleged a leader said "let's talk about n...rs." That day, the gang began patrolling the alley by a home where African-Americans lived within the gang's territory. A week later, unidentified member of Azusa 13 gang "tagged" "Get out n...," "A13" and "AZUSA 13" on the garage doors of a residential complex to intimidate the African-American residents.
As years passed, black residents endured beatings, confrontations, robberies and graffiti from the gang, according to the indictment.
In one attack, several suspects surrounded an African-American man, holding glass bottles, yelling racial epithets and then hit the man in the face. During the alleged attack, gang members broke the windows of the man's car and stole his car stereo as the victim ran to a convenience store to escape further violence, according to the indictment.
By 1999 the language and threats continued. Meanwhile, the city was struck by a spike in more serious hate crimes when several paroled gang members returned to Azusa's streets. In 2000, suspects threw firebombs into the homes of three black families on the same night. A year earlier, Gejuan Salle, a black man and hospital nurse, was shot as he was walking outside an auto parts store. Police believe both cases were racially motivated but they remain unsolved. Attacks continued into 2005.
But by early that decade, Azusa police and community groups began to push back. For a brief time, undercover officers even set up a retail shop called A Peace of Africa, with 24-hour surveillance, selling merchandise from Africa, hoping to entice gang members into attacking it. That attack didn't happen and the police department had to close the store for lack of funds.
But eventually the hate-crime investigation led police to arrest six gang members, part of what was known on the street as the gang's "trigger crew." At one trial, a gang member testifying for the prosecution said Azusa 13 would go out "hunting" blacks in Azusa. Those gang members were convicted and are now serving long terms in prison.
The last of those gang members tried, Ralph "Swifty" Flores, was convicted of committing four murders over several years and received the death penalty in 2008.
In recent years, hate crimes in Azusa have dropped to less than one a year, and usually are not gang related, said Garcia.
The gang's presence has notably diminished. Graffiti is all but gone from the area the gang has claimed since at least the 1960s.
"The indictment is the latest step," said City Councilman Robert Gonzales. "We have gangs in our city but we have been able to control and minimize the gang activity compared to the past."
"We were once classified as the hate-crime capital of the region," added Azusa Mayor Joe Rocha. "Today we are place of peace and tranquility."
(Times staff writer Abby Sewell contributed to this report.)
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