Hate-Crime Arrests Signal 'Victory' For California City
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.