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Arrested activist aroused suspicions

NO GUNS founder faces firearms charges. Some disbelieved his claim of leaving gang life behind.

June 02, 2007|Sam Quinones | Times Staff Writer

Former 18th Street gang member Hector "Weasel" Marroquin for years was celebrated and rewarded for having turned his life around.

He founded the anti-gang organization NO GUNS and received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the city for his efforts to help steer Latino youths away from a life of crime. His champions included former state Sen. Tom Hayden.

But his arrest this week on charges of selling firearms to federal undercover officers underscored concerns long held by people familiar with Marroquin's background that he had not left his criminal life behind.

"I never for a moment believed that he ever left the life," said Connie Rice, a civil rights attorney and former member of the Los Angeles Police Commission who noted that she saw Marroquin at meetings of anti-gang agencies. "I always thought he was using the system."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 03, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
NO GUNS: An article in Saturday's California section about the leader of the anti-gang organization NO GUNS misidentified civil rights attorney Connie Rice as a former member of the Los Angeles Police Commission. In 2003, Rice was named by the panel to head an independent commission to review the 1999 Rampart scandal.

Marroquin, 51, was arrested Thursday at his Downey home on charges of selling several guns, including a machine gun, two silencers and two rifles, to undercover officers. He bailed out of Los Angeles County jail Thursday night and could not be reached for comment.

His lawyer, Patrick Smith, did not return phone calls Friday.

Marroquin's arrest marks the latest chapter in a life filled with controversy.

In the mid-1990s, claiming to have left the gang life, Marroquin formed NO GUNS -- Networks Organized for Gang Unity and Neighborhood Safety -- headquartered in Lennox. Over the next decade, NO GUNS emerged as one of the area's few anti-gang groups run by Latinos.

In 2000, the Sheriff's Department called in NO GUNS to help quell riots between Latinos and blacks at its Pitchess Detention Center.

But some law enforcement officials believed that Marroquin was a front man for the Mexican Mafia prison gang and that NO GUNS was a facade for illegal activity and a channel for public funds.

One was Richard Valdemar, a retired sheriff's sergeant and expert on gangs who led an investigation that resulted in the first federal racketeering trial of Mexican Mafia members; it resulted in the conviction of 13. Valdemar said the Mexican Mafia has a long history of using anti-gang and drug rehabilitation groups as fronts to acquire public funds.

"This is a major part of their operation," said Valdemar, whom Marroquin unsuccessfully sued for defamation of character in 2002.

Valdemar said he and others voiced these concerns to the Sheriff's Department and the city of Los Angeles.

As part of its gang intervention efforts, the city through its L.A. Bridges program contracted with Toberman Settlement House, a Harbor-area social services agency, which in turn hired NO GUNS in 2003.

Bill Martinez, director of gang intervention programs for Toberman, said NO GUNS was hired because it was the only group in South Los Angeles working with Latino gangs. Over the next three years, NO GUNS collected more than $1.5 million in city funds as a subcontractor.

Marroquin's organization was contracted to help find job training for gang members and to mediate cease-fires, said Angela Estell of the city's Community Development Department.

The contract continued even though in December 2005, Hawthorne police arrested Marroquin's son, Hector Jr., known as "Little Weasel" and a principal in NO GUNS. He and another man were charged with a home-invasion robbery. Police said he had several weapons in his house. That case is scheduled for trial next week.

As part of that investigation, police arrested Marroquin Sr. on weapons-possession charges, said Hawthorne Police Det. Chris Port. The case is pending.

Last summer, NO GUNS lost its city contract after it was discovered that Marroquin had used funds to hire many of his family members, said Gloria Lockhart, director of Toberman Settlement House.

Marroquin's case illustrates the potential problems that public agencies face when they hire people with criminal pasts for gang prevention work.

Hayden, author of "Street Wars: Gangs and the Future of Violence," recalled asking Marroquin to help halt violence among Westside gangs in the late 1990s. Marroquin mediated and found construction jobs for several dozen gang members hanging drywall at the Playa Vista development, Hayden said.

"Police will tell you, when things are really violent ... these intervention workers are key to calming it down," Hayden said. "These guys perform a service. If they backslide, well, who doesn't?"

Marroquin and his family have a long history of run-ins with police.

In 1998, Marroquin was tried and acquitted on illegal weapons charges. At the time, he was on probation for brandishing a gun at sheriff's deputies who had gone to his house three years earlier in response to a domestic disturbance call.

In 2001, the charred body of Hector Romero, the boyfriend of Marroquin's daughter, Charleeda, was found near Wrightwood, Valdemar said.

According to several Marroquin family members, Romero was playing Russian roulette and shot himself to death.

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