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A Crusader's Lonely Vigil : Activism: By urging immigrants in Watts' toughest housing projects to report crime, Jaime Zeledon has angered gang members.

January 16, 1994|ROBERT J. LOPEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

His bedroom windows have been shot out, he's been robbed at gunpoint, and he's been called "snitch" more times than he cares to remember. But Jaime Zeledon remains undaunted.

After seeing gang members rob, assault and kill other Latino immigrants, Zeledon started a one-man anti-crime crusade. For the past year, he has walked the city's tough housing projects in Watts, urging immigrants who have been crime victims to call police and even taking reports on his own. He has done so with no pay and at great risk, sparking the ire of the gang members whom authorities blame for much of the violence in the area.

"This is my commitment to the community," said Zeledon, 41, a resident of the Jordan Downs housing project. "People have to speak out so that the police know what is happening."

His efforts come as the Los Angeles Police Department is planning to begin a major campaign this month to reach out to the growing Spanish-speaking community in South Central and Southwest Los Angeles. Faced with language and cultural barriers or fearful that police will turn over illegal immigrants to federal authorities, many Latinos in the area do not report crimes.

But Zeledon wants to change that.

With his mild manner and soft voice, the bespectacled father of four looks more like the elementary school principal that he was in Nicaragua than the crime fighter that he is at Jordan Downs.

"People here are afraid, but they have to understand that we have power when we unite," Zeledon said as he walked past the dreary blue buildings of the 690-unit Jordan Downs project.

Zeledon, his wife and his three children left war-torn Nicaragua in 1984, hoping for a better life in the United States. Laid off from a janitor job at the Los Angeles International Airport last year, he works part time for the California Literacy Project teaching immigrants to read in Spanish.

Active with student and labor groups in Nicaragua, Zeledon quickly became involved in the community after moving to Jordan Downs nearly three years ago.

He is a board member of the project's Resident Advisory Council and is a co-chair of its Unity Committee, which was formed to ease tensions between African Americans and Latinos after a September, 1991, arson fire that killed five members of a Latino family. The suspects were black and Latino, but Latino residents initially believed they were all African American. Two men were convicted in December of first-degree murder and arson for their role in the blaze.

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Zeledon is also a member of the Watts/Century Latino Organization, serving as its anti-crime organizer in the Nickerson Gardens, Imperial Courts and Jordan Downs projects.

"Jaime is a peacemaker. Although he and his folks have been victimized by some of the brothers, Jaime believes in unity," said Fred Williams, executive director of the Common Ground Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to keep youths out of gangs and in school. Williams and Zeledon worked closely last year to improve relations between African Americans and Latinos in the area after a rash of crimes against Latinos allegedly committed by black gang members.

Notebook in hand, Zeledon moves comfortably through the pillbox-like projects, where he is often met with the respectful Spanish salutation "Don Jaime." He also carries crime-report forms, which are printed by the Watts/Century organization, to document incidents for police.

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On a recent afternoon, Zeledon was pressed into action. A woman had been robbed at Nickerson Gardens.

"You can't be afraid. You have to go the police, or else no one will be able to help," Zeledon told the sobbing mother of two, who said her purse was stolen by a gun-wielding boy of about 15.

The woman, fighting back tears, refused.

"Why should I call the police? They can't protect me and my family (against retaliation) at night."

The scene was played out again the next day. This time, however, the results were different.

Former Jordan Downs resident Elvira Leon and her two children, ages 5 and 17, had been shot at by a masked gunman outside their apartment. Zeledon was called by Leon's neighbor.

"Mrs. Leon," Zeledon said, sitting in the family's shabby apartment, "be brave. I'll take you to the (manager's) office. . . . Come with me, and everything will be OK."

Without saying a word, Leon sat on a tattered sofa in her living room as Zeledon explained that she and her family were in danger and that they should request a transfer to another housing project.

They then went to the manager's office, where Leon reported the shooting to Housing Authority police. She and her family were transferred about two weeks later to another project.

Even Zeledon has not escaped the violence.

Last year, he and his 13-year-old son, Jaime Jr., were confronted at night by an armed robber as they walked through the dimly lit project. With a handgun pointed at his head, Zeledon handed over $79 as his son ran screaming to the apartment. Both were unharmed.

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