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Gang Members Targeted Black Families In Boyle Heights Firebombing, Report Says

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The Ramona Gardens Housing Development in Boyle Heights. (Wikimedia Commons)
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Federal prosecutors have charged seven Latino gang members with the firebombing of several Boyle Heights homes, and allege that the defendants were specifically targeting black families.According to a report from the L.A. Times, prosecutors believe that these attacks, which took place at Ramona Gardens in May 2014, were specifically designed to "drive African Americans out of the neighborhood." Ramona Gardens is the city's oldest public housing development, and it has a long history of racial tensions.

The Daily News notes that the 10-count indictment is one of the largest civil rights cases to happen locally. The charges include conspiracy to violate civil rights; conspiracy to use fire and carry explosives to commit another federal felony; violent crime in aid of racketeering, and interference with housing rights.

The U.S. Department of Justice said in a release that the defendants are all members or associates of Big Hazard or Hazard Grande, an Eastside street gang that authorities say has deep ties to the Mexican Mafia. Big Hazard has controlled Ramona Gardens for decades, though the Times reports that the gang's grip on the public housing complex has weakened in recent years.

In May, 2014, according to the DOJ, one of the defendants—31-year-old Carlos Hernandez, a.k.a "Creeper" or "Rider," held a Hazard meeting near Ramona Gardens and "allegedly told the group that they were going to use Molotov cocktails to firebomb residential units in [Ramona Gardens] that were occupied by African-American families." The indictment continues, alleging that Hernandez told the other members of Hazard that "the purpose of the firebombing was to 'get the n****** out of the neighborhood,' or words to that effect."

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Later that month, three days before the attack took place, the members of Hazard prepared for the attack, where Hernandez handed out "disguises, gloves and other materials," according to the indictment. On the night of the firebombing, according to the Times, the men broke apartment windows inside residential units at Ramona Gardens before throwing Molotov cocktails inside, where families—including children—lived. Out of the four apartments damaged, three were occupied by black families, according to the Times.

Surveillance footage captured at the time showed eight suspects on a pedestrian bridge east of the Soto Street offramp by the 10 Freeway, walking toward the rear of Ramona Gardens. Several people are shown appearing to light Molotov cocktails, before flames take over the outside of the building.

While the attack caused "minor to moderate damage," with residents able to return home later that day, police said that some of the black families living in Ramona Gardens requested emergency transfer orders to other projects.

“This crime was particularly heinous because they attacked people’s homes, where children were sleeping," said Eileen Decker, U.S. attorney for the Central District of California said in the DOJ statement. "The fact that children were endangered made this a particularly disturbing type of crime."

The Times notes that since Big Hazard has come to prominence in Boyle Heights, their modus operandi is keeping black people out of their community. In 1992, two black families were similarly firebombed at Ramona Gardens, prompting the exodus of the seven remaining black families in the project. For 20 years, "virtually no blacks lived at Ramona Gardens," according to the Times.

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The most recent indictment, as per the DOJ, suggests that the Hazards are still employing intimidation tactics against black residents with impunity. The statement says defendants would

threaten, intimidate, and attack African Americans in their residences, on the streets and elsewhere, to deter them from living in Ramona Gardens because of their race and color. [Defendant Jose] Saucedo would confront African-American residents, including mixed-race children, and individually or collectively threaten them by telling them they were not welcome in Hazard gang territory, namely, [Ramona Gardens], and that they risked harm if they remained as residents.

"The defendants used firebombs to drive the victims from their homes because of their race," said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division added. "This is a hate crime. Such violence and intimidation have no place in our society.”