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Black on Brown Crime : Racial Tension, Poverty Blamed for Rise in Violence Toward Latinos

September 05, 1993|ROBERT J. LOPEZ

Only weeks after she graduated from high school, the 19-year-old woman lay dying on the grass, an innocent victim caught in the gunfire of a gang shooting at a Watts housing project. A decade ago, odds would have been good that both the shooter and the victim would have been black. But today, as in the July 27 killing of Maribel Ayala, black gang members at the Nickerson Gardens and Jordan Downs projects are increasingly preying on and harassing Latinos, who constitute about a third of the 6,224 residents there, according to police and community activists.

Latinos are frequent crime victims for various reasons, ranging from the perception that they are easy targets because they often carry a lot of cash to tensions resulting from a large influx of Latinos into once-black enclaves, say authorities and community leaders.

"You don't want to label it just racial, but there's a problem," said Alberta Harris, an African-American and vice president of the Resident Management Corp. at Jordan Downs.

The Los Angeles Police Department has refused several requests for data on the race of crime victims and perpetrators in South-Central, saying the department lacks the resources to compile the data. Police also say a major reason crime reports are likely to underestimate the extent of violence is that many Latino victims do not come forward out of fear of retaliation.

But there is a consensus among area residents, housing officials and police that anecdotal evidence points to an increase in robberies and assaults since a pact between Latino residents and black gang members unraveled at the start of summer after job programs failed to materialize. The pact was arranged by African-American and Latino activists last October after a wave of gang violence in the summer of 1992.

"What I see as most disgusting is what seems to be totally innocent Hispanics being preyed upon," said Sgt. Nick Sinibaldi, a patrol supervisor at the Police Department's Southeast Division station. "It's epidemic at times."

The tension at Jordan Downs and Nickerson Gardens has prompted black and Latino community activists to plan several events for this month, including a unity dinner and a meeting between black gang members and Latino residents at Jordan Downs.

"People are terrorized and want to leave, but they can't afford to go anywhere else," said Arturo Ybarra, president of the Watts/Century Latino Organization, the only Latino community group in South Los Angeles.

Said Howard Wasserman, manager of Jordan Downs: "Things calmed down after the first of the year. But as soon as summer began, it popped up again."

To be sure, crimes against African-Americans in the projects have not let up. In the past, police and residents say, black women were often seen as the easiest targets. But changing demographics have created new victims, resulting in crimes such as the killing of Maribel Ayala.

Heladio Lopez, stepfather of Ayala, and his cousin were confronted about 9 p.m. in a Nickerson Gardens parking lot by a young black man with a gun. Lopez, a janitor who had cashed his check at a meat market earlier, handed the robber $70.

The cousin, meanwhile, grabbed a gun from his nearby car and fired several shots, striking the robber twice as he rode away on a bicycle.

About 10 minutes later, as Lopez and Ayala stood outside, several young black men arrived in a car, got out and fired about 25 rounds from high-powered handguns, police said. Ayala, a Jordan High School graduate who was to attend Cal State Dominguez Hills in the fall, was hit once in the forehead. Lopez was not harmed.

"She didn't do anything. Why? Why? Why?" cried Lopez, fighting back tears as he rubbed his fingers over a small photograph of his daughter.

Cornelious Stewart, 19, an alleged gang member, was charged with murder and robbery in connection with the killing and is awaiting arraignment in Superior Court, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Scott Carbough. Stewart was arrested after he arrived at a hospital in what police said was the getaway car. Stewart had been wounded in the leg and chest, apparently during the alleged earlier robbery attempt. Police said Lopez's cousin was not arrested in that shooting because he acted in self-defense.

Just a week before the killing, Lopez had moved his family to Nickerson Gardens temporarily, seeking refuge in a friend's apartment because their own home at the nearby Imperial Courts was too dangerous. The family's apartment had been shot at and burglarized and their car stereo had been stolen. Lopez said the attacks may have been linked to arguments his family had with drug dealers near his apartment.

"We have been having a lot of problems with black people. We already have five police report(s)," Lopez's wife, Adela Cuevas, wrote in a June 19, 1993, letter to the housing manager requesting a transfer. "They do not stop bothering us and we will like to move to a better area where there is not a lot of violence."

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