Racial ‘Cleansing’ in L.A.
Federal prosecutors say a powerful Latino gang systematically targeted rival black gang members and innocent black civilians in a reign of terrors.

Newsweek | October 24, 2007
By Andrew Murr

A south Los Angeles Latino street gang targeted African-American gang rivals and other blacks in a campaign of neighborhood "cleansing," federal prosecutors say. Alleged leaders and foot soldiers in the Hispanic gang Florencia 13, also called F13, are being arraigned this week on charges stemming from a pair of federal indictments that allege that the gang kept a tight grip on its turf by shooting members of a rival gang—and sometimes random black civilians. The "most disturbing aspect" of the federal charges was that "innocent citizens … ended up being shot simply because of the color of their skin," U.S. Attorney Thomas O'Brien told reporters in announcing the indictments.

No one is sure what started the war between F13 and the black gang known as the East Coast Crips in the Florence-Firestone area of unincorporated L.A. County. Simple neighborhood demographic shifts played a role, as formerly black areas have become majority-Latino. The two gangs are also rivals in the lucrative drug trade. Much of the F13 indictments lay out a conspiracy alleging that gang members controlled drug houses where they sold large amounts of cocaine, crack and methamphetamine. Some say the killings began after the Crips pulled a large drug heist against F13 several years ago. Whatever the causes, L.A. Sheriff's Department statistics chart the war's violent toll: 80 gang-related shootings in the past three years, including 20 murders.

The federal charges name 61 alleged F13 members in two indictments. The gang-violence charges came in a 53-count RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) indictment against 24 alleged gang leaders, charging them in a conspiracy to sell drugs, possess weapons illegally, and assault and kill black gang members and civilians. In the second indictment prosecutors charged the rest of the men on federal drug-distribution charges. More than 40 of the defendants pleaded not guilty at arraignments Tuesday, according to prosecutors. Michael Khouri, an attorney for Luis Aguilar, 35, says his client left the gang "several years ago" and served recently as a gang negotiator. "Mr. Aguilar will plead not guilty, and he is not guilty," says Khouri. Fifteen of the accused remain fugitives.

The indictments provide a telling snapshot of the changing nature of gangs in south L.A. According to federal prosecutors, F13 has grown into a tightly controlled gang of 2,000 members in 30 cliques led by convicts and parolees who are members of the prison-based Mexican mafia. It's a far cry from the '80s, when the black drug gangs, including the Crips and the Bloods, predominated, mining the crack epidemic with ruthless efficiency. Compared with looser Latino gangs that were seen as turf-conscious fighters, the black gangs were organized and disciplined. "The stereotype was that [the black gangs] were all about the [drug] business," says gang researcher Cheryl Maxson, an associate professor of criminology at University of California, Irvine. With the black gangs, "there was a millionaire in every neighborhood" perched at the top of the crack distribution pyramid, adds gang expert, who edits streetgangs.com.

Now it's the Latino drug gangs that seem tighter and more highly controlled. "The Hispanic gangs like F13 were incredibly regulated, from the street level to the leadership in the prisons," says Olivia Rosales, a hard-core gangs prosecutor for the L.A. district attorney's office who prosecuted F13 and Crips homicide cases for two years. She now heads one of the DA's satellite offices. "The East Coast Crips weren't as organized."

Top-down organization in F13 aided the assaults on black gangsters. The federal indictments charge that Mexican mafia leaders "make sure that all the F13 cliques were participating in the assaults of African-American rival gang members." But the assaults went beyond rival gangs; they "target[ed] African-American individuals for assault," according to the indictment. Gang leaders even allegedly instructed foot soldiers in how to hunt blacks in the most efficient manner, the feds maintain. A wiretap cited in the RICO indictment reveals that one gang leader allegedly told an underling that "when he went looking for African-Americans to shoot, only a driver and a shooter were needed."

The targeting of blacks by the Latino F13 appears to be an anomaly; experts say the majority of gang violence still involves a gang member and a victim of the same race. "On average, the violence just isn't race-based," says UC Irvine criminologist George Tita. "Our studies show there's no pattern of black-brown crime." Between 2000 and 2006 black offenders in south Los Angeles were more than seven times more likely to kill black victims, according to a study recently published by Tita and colleagues; Hispanic killers targeted fellow Hispanics twice as often.

But clearly race was a motivating factor for the F13 gang. In one case in the indictment, two Florencia gang members came upon a black couple on Florence Boulevard in September 2005. One shouted "F— Cheese Toast" (a derogatory name for the East Coast Crips) and ordered the other to shoot the pair. (The feds say the couple weren't affiliated with any gang.) Instead they stole the woman's purse, Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Hernandez, the case's lead prosecutor, tells NEWSWEEK. An unnamed black victim at a bus stop the month before hadn't been so lucky, Hernandez says. F13 members shot him "three or four times, but he survived."

The F13 indictment marks the third high-profile Latino gang charged with attacking blacks in the past two years. Last year federal prosecutors won life sentences against four members of the Latino Avenues gang for civil rights violations of blacks they had murdered simply for moving into the gang's Highland Park turf. State prosecutors say the Latino 204th Street gang targeted African-Americans not affiliated with gangs, writing graffiti such as "187 N———" (187 is shorthand for "kill"; it's the California penal code section number for homicide). Two 204th Street members face an upcoming trial on state murder charges for the slaying of 14-year-old Cheryl Green, a black teen killed on the street last December.

For all the evidence of race-based targeting of victims, federal prosecutors haven't filed civil rights charges against F13 members, though Hernandez says the idea remains under investigation in the ongoing case. (Hernandez explains that the charges are difficult to prove and wouldn't increase prison time for those convicted of the other charges, anyway.) But law enforcement officials say the F13 members—and the Crips—frequently targeted victims based on race. "The way it came out was that any young black man could be the target of [F13] and any young Hispanic man was the target of the [black gang]," says Rosales. "All they see is race."

L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca tells NEWSWEEK that early wiretaps in the case recorded phone calls in which a senior F13 member ordered a young gang "soldier" to kill a particular East Coast Crip. But when "the soldier called back to say he couldn't find the [Crip], the gang leader told him to shoot any black," Baca says. "I disagree that it wasn't a hate crime." In response to the gang war, Baca flooded the Florence-Firestone neighborhood with deputies in 2005, after the area had suffered 41 murders. Last year the number dropped to 19.