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Gang rivalry grows into race war

Battle over the drug trade has led to escalating violence in Florence-Firestone.

October 18, 2007|Sam Quinones | Times Staff Writer

As the story goes, the East Coast Crips robbed a Florencia 13 drug connection of a large quantity of dope nearly a decade ago. Since then, the tale of how a black street gang ripped off a Latino rival has taken on mythic proportions.

But to this day police are uncertain if the fabled heist ever occurred.

"You hear so many different variations of this crime," said Terry Burgin, a Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department gang detective. "Who knows what really happened? [But] the effects are tremendous."

Over the years, the two rival gangs have battled over control of the drug trade in Florence-Firestone, an unincorporated neighborhood north of Watts.

The feud has escalated into what many residents call a race war.

It used to be that innocent bystanders were not targeted, said Chris Le Grande, pastor of Great Hope Fellowship in Faith, one of Florence-Firestone's largest black churches. "Now it's deliberate. 'I'm deliberately shooting you because of your color.' "

On Tuesday, the U.S. attorney's office announced a sweeping indictment against more than 60 members of Florencia 13, accusing the Latino gang of waging a violent campaign to drive out African American rivals. Once primarily black, the working class community of 60,000 today is mostly Latino.

But some say that's only part of the truth. The war has two sides, said Robert Ramirez, a Florencia 13 gang member.

"I'm not going to say we're angels, but it's 50-50," he said, as fellow gang members sprayed walls with Florencia graffiti. " 'Any black, shoot on sight?' -- it's not true. Nobody likes a racist person."

The neighborhood saw 41 homicides in 2005, surpassing the homicide rate in some of the nation's most dangerous big cities, authorities said. About half of those killed had no gang affiliation.

Homicides dropped to 19 last year after a major law enforcement crackdown that led to 230 felony arrests and the seizure of 130 weapons. But the level of violence remains high.

Authorities attribute the neighborhood's gang troubles in large part to the huge demographic shift that occurred in this economically depressed community over the last 20 years, tipping the balance of power from black to Latino and turning it into a tinderbox of racial tensions.

That kind of demographic shift has occurred in many parts of Southern California, but Florence-Firestone is one of the places where it has turned violent. The violence threatens an economic revival that has begun to revitalize the neighborhood.

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Mexican Mafia strategy

For years, the two rival gangs resisted outside pressures to go to war, according to those active in Florencia in the 1990s.

Like many black and Latino gangs, they ignored each other during the worst gang years of the late '80s and early '90s. Instead, they focused on attacking rivals of their own race.

But during the mid-'90s, the Mexican Mafia prison gang began directing Latino gangs to stop fighting each other, to "tax" drug dealers and to push blacks from their neighborhoods, according to numerous gang members and law enforcement officers.

Florencia, in particular, had warred for years with 38th Street, a Latino gang to the north.

But under the new rules, Florencia was forced to get along with rival Latino gangs and once even played a pickup football game with 38th Street, said one Florencia gang member who requested anonymity out of fear for his safety.

The Mexican Mafia "didn't understand how it worked," he said. "I hate 38th Street. I didn't have no problem with the guys from East Coast because I grew up with them. It's kind of hard to say, 'Now I'm going to. . . kill this black guy just because he's black.' But that's how they wanted to do it."

In 1996 tensions erupted when members of a gang associated with East Coast Crips, known as the 6-5 Hustlers, killed a Florencia member.

After some retaliation, the gangs held a peace summit at Parmelee Elementary School one night, and that "kind of squashed everything," the gang member said.

But the fighting resumed when word, perhaps mythical, spread about the East Coast Crips' drug rip-off of Florencia 13.

Race, gang rivalry and drugs have become impossibly tangled as motives in killings and assaults in the neighborhood, authorities and residents say. The result: a gangland version of racial profiling.

"They just see a young man of the opposite race and they shoot," said Olivia Rosales, a former hate-crime prosecutor, who prosecuted all the East Coast-Florencia murder cases for the last two years. "They don't stop to question whether or not they are a member of the gang."

Of the 20 cases she prosecuted, said Rosales, who now runs the district attorney's Whittier office, "most of the victims have not been members of the rival gang."

Demetrius Perry, 22, was shot to death by Latinos yelling a gang epithet as he played basketball in January at Drew Middle School, witnesses said.

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