Three men from East Los Angeles men agreed to plead guilty on Thursday to violating the civil rights of African-Americans in the Ramona Gardens Housing Development on May 12, 2014. They will also plead guilty to racketeering charges for participating in the 2014 firebombing of African-American homes at the Ramona Gardens Housing Development. Eight members of the Big Hazard street gang prepared homemade gasoline bombs at the housing development in the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles, which they claimed as their turf, and drove outside.

Returning later on foot so as to avoid security cameras, they smashed the windows of pre-selected targets, throwing their ignited Molotov cocktails into four apartment dwellings. According to plea agreements, there were African-American families in each of the apartments. The men, women and children were sleeping at the time of the attack.

Filed on April 5 in the Central District of California, the Jose Saucedo (aka “Lil’ Moe,”), 24, Edwin Felix (aka “Boogie”), 26, and Jonathan Portillo (aka “Pelon”), 23 admitted to the attack and that they targeted the families because of their race and color. The three members of the Big Hazard gang did so with the intent of forcing the families to leave the federally funded housing complex. According to Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore of the DOJ Civil Rights Division, “The defendants’ racially motivated and unprovoked attack on families sleeping peacefully in their homes caused fear and destruction.” He added, “The Justice Department will continue to vigorously prosecute violent acts of hate.”

“It was a miracle that no one was injured in these racially motivated attacks,” said United States Attorney Nicola T. Hanna. “These defendants have admitted their goal was to drive African Americans out of this housing facility. This simply will not be tolerated, and we will take any and all steps necessary to protect the civil rights of every person who lives in the United States.”

"The innocent victims of this cold-blooded attack were targeted based on the color of their skin," said Paul D. Delacourt, the Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI's Los Angeles Field Office. “These plea agreements are the first step in delivering justice to the victims, as well as delivering the universal message that there is no place for racially motivated hatred or violence in the United States."

The three defendants agreed to plead guilty to conspiring to violate the civil rights of the African-American families, specifically the constitutional right to live in a residence free from “injury, intimidation and interference based on race.” They also agreed to plead guilty to using force – a dangerous weapon, (explosives and fire) – to injure, intimidate and interfere with the African-American residents because of their race and because they were living in the Ramona Gardens Housing Development. They also agreed to plead guilty to committing a violent racketeering crime..

Portillo has agreed to plead guilty to a charge of using fire to commit another federal felony, while Saucedo and Felix have agreed to plead guilty to a charge of attempted malicious damage of federal property through the use of fire. Once they enter their guilty pleas, all three defendants will face potential sentences of over 30 years in federal prison.

Three other members of the Big Hazard gang who were charged in this case – Francisco Farias (aka “Bones”), 27, Joel Matthew Monarrez (aka “Gallo”), 23, and Jose Zamora (aka “Fresco)”, 28 had already pleaded guilty to federal hate crimes and related offenses. These defendants are pending sentencing. The final two defendants charged in this case, Carlos Hernandez (aka “Rider”), 33, and Josue Garibay (aka “Malo”), 24, are to stand trial in a federal court in July. 

According to a 2016 indictment, Hernandez instructed the other defendants to meet at a location in Hazard gang territory on Mother’s Day in 2014, to prepare for the attack. There, Hernandez allegedly distributed materials to be used during the firebombing, including disguises, gloves, and other materials. He told the gang members that the Mexican Mafia had handed down orders to carry out the racist attack. The Mexican Mafia is a prison gang that controls the majority of Latino gangs in Southern California.

It was Hernandez who instructed the other defendants to break the victims’ windows to allow clean entry of the firebombs, and throw them into the victims’ residences. One of the victims, a mother sleeping on her couch with her infant child in her arms, narrowly missed being struck by one of the defendants’ firebombs. Various local and federal law enforcement agencies have been involved in the investigation.

According to a 2016 official report, hate crimes committed against African-Americans, Latinos, Jews and transgender women rose sharply across Los Angeles County in 2015. Compiled annually by the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations, the report found that hate crimes grew by 24 percent in 2015 compared with the year before. Half of the 483 crimes reported were racially motivated, of which 58 percent of the attacks targeted African-Americans. Most were committed by Latinos, many of whom were gang-affiliated. Latinos also saw more racially motivated attacks on them in 2015.

“The great majority of African-Americans and Latino/as in Los Angeles County co-exist peacefully and are not involved in ongoing racial conflict,” according to the report. “However, for many years this report has documented that most hate crimes targeting African-Americans are committed by Latino/as and vice versa. This is particularly true in neighborhoods that have undergone rapid demographic shifts from being primarily black to majority Latino/a.”

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Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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