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Hate-Crime Arrests Signal 'Victory' For California City

Jun 14, 2011
Originally published on June 14, 2011 11:19 pm

Azusa is a small, working-class college city along the train tracks in the San Gabriel Valley, just 25 miles east of Los Angeles. Federal prosecutors say for years, the Varrio Azusa 13 gang has monopolized sales of cocaine, heroin and meth here.

"This gang has waged an insidious, two-decade campaign of violence, fueled not only by drug dealing but by racial animus and hatred," U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte told reporters in L.A. "They had an edict dating back to 1992 to basically get rid of African-Americans from Azusa."

Last week, 51 alleged Azusa 13 members were arrested and charged with federal racketeering and also civil rights violations. Birotte says since 1992, they've terrorized Azusa's black residents.

"This gang made a decision: 'What are we gonna do about the African-Americans in this community? We need to get rid of them,' " Birotte told NPR. "They made no bones about it, confronting African-Americans in the community to get out: 'You're not welcome here.' They were explicit racial epithets, spray-painting graffiti with graphic terms of 'f--- the n-----s,' 'you n-----s are not allowed here.' "

Birotte says gang members intimidated, beat, robbed and kidnapped black residents, and murdered a teenager. During a three-year investigation, Azusa police and federal agents interviewed informants, witnesses and victims to collect evidence that Azusa 13 members paid taxes to the Mexican mafia prison gang for narcotics sales. Police Chief Robert Garcia says targeting blacks was part of their business plan.

"Some of it is just racial prejudice, but some of it does interfere with the business enterprise of the drug sales," Garcia says.

Sitting in a city park, LaLisa Morgan tries to make sense of the gang's game plan.

"They wanted to make sure they had the strong market share," says Morgan, who has lived with her family in Azusa for the past 10 years. "They wanted to make sure that even if I'm black but not gang affiliated, I may have relatives who are gang affiliated, so therefore I can't be allowed to stay here because my relatives may come visit me and infiltrate this area."

Morgan, a social worker, says she is afraid to go into certain parts of Azusa, and that her children have been harassed.

"My son was jumped in second grade because he's black," says Morgan, who says her older sons are also constantly threatened by gang members. "My son said, 'Oh, if you look at 'em back, they sweat you, but if you look down like you're scared, they leave you alone.' "

The hate crimes were even worse when Morgan's friend, Claudia Owens Shields, moved to Azusa in the late 1990s. She remembers one night when three black families were firebombed.

"Molotov cocktails were thrown into their homes," she recalls.

After that, the city created a human relations commission that Owens Shields now coordinates. Morgan is one of the commissioners. Every year, residents gather for a peace rally, and high school students get trained in tolerance and leadership. The police chief and U.S. attorney's office say these efforts have helped reduce hate crimes to less than one a year.

"I know we're making a difference, but I don't feel like this indictment is a reason to get comfortable." She adds, "This is an amazing victory. We won this battle in an ongoing war."

Owens Shields points out that the KKK is just next-door, in neighboring San Gabriel Valley cities. But, she says, at least Azusa is confronting racial intolerance head-on.

Meanwhile, LaLisa Morgan says she's determined to live among her mostly Latino neighbors in Azusa, the city she moved to from South Central L.A.

"I found a niche of people that support me and my family, and we became our own little family here," Morgan says. "Regardless of what the Azusa 13 think they want to do, this is my home."

If the alleged members of Azusa 13 are convicted, federal prison might be their home for the next 30 years.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

BLOCK: In Southern California, alleged members of a Latino street gang are being charged with drug trafficking and civil rights violations. Prosecutors say the Azusa 13 gang waged a long campaign to rid their community of African-Americans.

NPR's Mandalit Del Barco reports on two decades of intimidation and violence.

(Soundbite of train)

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: Azusa is a small, working-class city along the train tracks in the San Gabriel Valley, just 25 miles east of Los Angeles. This is where members of the Varrio Azusa 13 Gang monopolized sales of cocaine, heroin and meth, says U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte.

Mr. ANDRE BIROTTE (U.S. Attorney, Central District of California): This gang has waged an insidious, two-decade campaign of violence fueled not only by drug dealing, but by racial animus and hatred.

DEL BARCO: The 51 defendants are being charged with federal racketeering and also civil rights violations. Birotte says since 1992, they've terrorized Azusa's black residents.

Mr. BIROTTE: This gang made a decision, what are we going to do about the African-Americans in this community? We need to get rid of them. And I mean, they made no bones about it, confronting African-Americans in the city of Azusa to get out - you're not welcome here. And they were explicit, racial epithets - F-the-N's, you N's are not allowed here.

DEL BARCO: Birotte says gang members intimidated, beat, robbed and kidnapped black residents, and even murdered a teenager. Azusa police and federal agents interviewed informants, witnesses and victims to collect evidence that Azusa 13 members paid taxes to the Mexican mafia prison gang for narcotics sales.

Police Chief Robert Garcia says targeting blacks was part of their business plan.

Mr. ROBERT GARCIA (Police Chief, Azusa Police Department): Some of it is just racial prejudice. But some of it does interfere with the business enterprise of the drug sales.

Ms. LALISA MORGAN: They want to make sure they had the strong market share.

DEL BARCO: LaLisa Morgan has lived with her family in Azusa for the past 10 years. Sitting at a city park, she tries to make sense of the gang's game plan.

Ms. MORGAN: They want to make sure, even if I'm not black - I'm black but I'm not gang affiliated. I may have relatives who are gang affiliated so therefore, I can't be allowed to stay here because my relatives may come visit me and infiltrate this area.

DEL BARCO: As a social worker, Morgan says she's sometimes afraid to go into certain parts of Azusa, and her children have been harassed.

Ms. MORGAN: My son was jumped in second grade.

DEL BARCO: She says her older sons are also constantly threatened by gang members.

Ms. MORGAN: My son said, oh, if you look at them back, they sweat you, but if you look down like you're scared, then they kind of leave you alone.

DEL BARCO: The hate crimes were even worse when Morgan's friend Claudia Owens-Shields moved to Azusa in the late 1990s. She remembers one night when three African-Americans families were firebombed.

Ms. CLAUDIA OWENS-SHIELDS: Molotov cocktails were thrown into their homes.

DEL BARCO: After that, the city created a Human Relations Commission that Owens-Shields now coordinates. LaLisa Morgan is a commissioner. Every year, residents gather for a peace rally, and high school students get trained in tolerance and leadership. Owens-Shields and the police chief say these efforts have helped reduce hate crimes to less than one a year.

Ms. OWENS-SHIELDS: I know that we're making a difference, but I don't feel like this indictment is a reason to get comfortable. This is an amazing victory. We won this battle in an ongoing war.

DEL BARCO: Owens-Shields points out the KKK is just next door, in neighboring San Gabriel Valley cities. But she says at least Azusa is confronting racial intolerance head-on.

LaLisa Morgan says she's determined to live among her mostly Latino neighbors in Azusa, the city she moved to from South Central L.A.

Ms. MORGAN: I found a niche of people that supported me and my family, and we became our own little family here because this is my home. Regardless of what the Azusa 13 think they want to do, this is my home.

DEL BARCO: If the alleged members of Azusa 13 are convicted, federal prison might be their home for the next 30 years.

Mandalit Del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.