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No Escaping War : Salvadoran Refugee Slain When Tensions Boil at Housing Project

August 08, 1990|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Day in and day out, the neighborhood street gang clustered on the concrete front porch of Juan Alberto Joya's cramped apartment in the Pueblo del Rio housing project south of downtown Los Angeles.

For the four months Joya and his family had lived there, they mostly put up with it, hunkered uneasily in their drab, concrete-block unit as the gang members joked and jostled just outside the window, brazenly playing music and selling crack cocaine during the day and far into the night.

Finally, Joya had had enough. This battle of nerves seemed no better than El Salvador, the war-ravaged land he had fled in 1985. So on Monday afternoon, the 40-year-old Salvadoran army veteran mustered his courage and tried to chase several of the gang members off his stoop.

They argued. Then one of the youths fetched an assault rifle. He shot and killed Joya, spraying the apartment with 15 to 20 rounds of semiautomatic-weapons fire.

The gang scattered after the shooting, but on Tuesday the suspected triggerman walked into a nearby police substation with an attorney and gave himself up. Cesari Hardman, 19, was arrested and booked on suspicion of murder.

For Joya's widow, Maria Mindala Aguilar, 44, the arrest offered little solace. She remains in the tiny two-bedroom apartment with the couple's 10-year-old daughter, Migdalia, grappling with a mixture of grief over the loss of her husband and fear that the threats and intimidation will never wane.

Such fear seems as much a part of Pueblo del Rio as the baby-blue paint on its concrete walls. With its mix of blacks, Latinos and Cambodians, racial tensions only add to the gang woes, some residents say.

"So many bullets, so many bullets," Aguilar murmured in Spanish, pointing to the scattered bullet holes in the apartment's block walls. "Things here can be just like in El Salvador. You can be in your house and they attack you. It's just the same."

She said her family left El Salvador to find peace in the United States. They settled into a life as garment workers, but problems with the frequent immigration sweeps at the factories prompted Joya and his wife to save up and buy a pair of industrial-quality sewing machines to do piecework at home.

All was fine, she said, until the family moved to Pueblo del Rio. From the beginning, she said, their apartment was a magnet for gang members, who seemed to find the family's unit, at the far end of a long building, a strategically perfect spot to avoid the prying eyes of police.

Lt. Dennis Hegwood of the Housing Authority Police Department said officers have made significant inroads against gang problems in recent years.

However, he acknowledged, the project remains a haven for some criminals, including drug dealers who come from nearby neighborhoods.

Like many of his neighbors, Joya would take extreme precautions against the gang menace.

Haunted by his days in the Salvadoran war, he slept most nights on the downstairs couch with a machete nearby in case thieves broke in, Aguilar said.

As the weeks went by, the episodes with the gang escalated. It started with taunts and slurs, she said. Gang members took to camping out near the apartment door, laughing and shouting long after midnight. They pushed at the Joyas' front door menacingly, blew smoke in their faces as they passed by or urinated on the back step until the urine pooled inside the unit, she said.

Aguilar said her husband kept his cool mostly, but a neighbor tells it differently. Lisa Moore, 22, lives just across a grassy courtyard from the Joya apartment. Moore said she had seen Joya on more than one occasion grab his machete and threaten residents, even small children, who got too close to his home.

"Every time someone walked by he used to chase them with that sword of his," Moore said. "Every day he would be going off on you. . . . I don't think anyone deserves to be shot, but I guess they got tired of it."

Others support Aguilar's story. Maria Nuno, another neighbor, said the gangs squat on her front porch as well, and have threatened her family with guns. By the time police arrive, the guns have disappeared and all is calm.

"Yesterday it was him, tomorrow it may be someone else," said Nuno, 34, a mother of nine. "I fear they'll start spraying bullets around here with so many children."

For Juan Joya, it was his child that finally prodded him to take action, his widow said. The girl reported to her parents that she had seen the girlfriend of a gang member pull down her pants to hide drugs inside her pantyhose.

"He just couldn't take it anymore," Aguilar said. "After all the things that happened, that was it. He didn't want our daughter to see that anymore."

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