LOS ANGELES – In a law enforcement action that targeted the Varrio Azusa 13 street gang, 16 people were arrested pursuant to a federal indictment that alleges violations of the federal racketeering statute and a nearly 20-year conspiracy to violate the civil rights of African-Americans in the City of Azusa, according to a federal racketeering indictment unsealed Tuesday.
In addition to the 16 federal arrests this morning, 23 of the defendants were already in custody and seven people were arrested on state narcotics charges, meaning that a total of 46 people linked to the Azusa 13 gang are now in custody in relation to Operation “Bright Lights Big City.” Authorities are seeking 12 fugitives named in the federal indictment.
Last week, a federal grand jury returned a 24-count indictment that charges a total of 51 defendants with a host of crimes, including conspiracy to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) and conspiracy to violate the civil rights of African-Americans. While prior federal cases targeting street gangs have included allegations of race-based violence, the case against the Azusa 13 gang marks only the second time in history that federal civil rights laws have been used against members of a criminal street gang.
Nearly two decades ago, the Azusa 13 gang adopted a racist principle “that members of the gang will harass and use violence to drive African-Americans out of the City of Azusa and would use violence in order to prevent African-Americans from moving into the City,” according to the indictment. Six of the defendants are charged in the civil rights conspiracy, which alleges a series of incidents in which African-Americans were harassed through racist graffiti and subjected to attacks that included beatings and robberies. The racist incidents alleged in the indictment span a period from 1992 until May 2010, when an African-American high school student was beaten as he walked home from school.
“The Azusa 13 gang waged a campaign of hate during a two-decade crime spree in which African-Americans were harassed and attacked,” said United States Attorney André Birotte Jr. “We hope that this federal case will signal the end of this racist behavior and will help vindicate all of the victims who have suffered over the years.”
Azusa Police Chief Robert B. Garcia said: “Today, we remember the victims of hate crimes and their families. Crimes based upon hatred are intolerable in our society and represent the worst in human behavior. Human beings who victimize others simply because of their race are criminals who will be punished.”
In addition to the RICO charge and the civil rights conspiracy count, the indictment alleges a long-running conspiracy to distribute narcotics, specifically heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine. The Azusa 13 gang developed a “business plan” that outlined methods by which the gang would control the narcotics business in Azusa, according to the indictment. Under the business plan, members of Azusa 13 sought to “monopolize the entire drug market in the city of Azusa” through several means, including maintaining “top of the line artillery” and being prepared to kidnap relatives of wayward drug dealers.
Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent in Charge Timothy J. Landrum stated, “The Azusa 13 street gang has impacted the San Gabriel Valley area for far too long. By joining with our law enforcement partners, this investigation has resulted in removing dangerous gang members and illegal drugs off our streets. Today’s arrests are an affirmative step to reducing the impact of violent drug gangs in our communities.”
As part of its narcotics operation, the gang extorted payments from street-level drug dealers in exchange for authorization to conduct business in Azusa 13 territory. The payments – known as “rent” or “tax” – were funneled to members of the Mexican Mafia who exerted control over the gang. The RICO charge in the indictment outlines the organizational structure of the gang, which has associates who obtain narcotics and weapons, street-level operatives, a top gang leader known as a “Keyholder,” and a member of the Mexican Mafia who has the power to issue orders and approve who fills the Keyholder position. The “13" in the gang’s name stands for the letter M and indicates the gang’s longtime affiliation with the Mexican Mafia.
“The alleged ‘tax’ payments made to the Mexican Mafia documented in this indictment demonstrate the hierarchy and organization of this criminal enterprise,” said Marcus E. Williams, acting Special Agent in Charge of IRS - Criminal Investigation’s Los Angeles Field Office. “We play a unique role in federal law enforcement’s resolve to dismantle the criminal gang enterprises terrorizing our streets. Our agents target the profit and financial gains of these organizations, following the money in an effort to disrupt these organizations and bring their members to justice.”
Operation Bright Lights Big City is the result of an investigation that was conducted by the Los Angeles HIDTA Task Force, a federally funded group made up of federal and local law enforcement agencies, including the DEA and IRS-Criminal Investigation. The Azusa Police Department worked in conjunction with the Task Force during this investigation, which started in early 2008.
The High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program is designed to enhance and coordinate efforts among local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. Today’s crackdown on the Azusa 13 gang is the latest example of federal and local authorities joining forces to fight the most entrenched street gangs.
The 27 defendants charged in the RICO count face a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison. Nearly all of the defendants named in the indictment face 10-year mandatory minimum penalties if they are convicted of charged narcotics offenses.
Those taken into custody this morning on federal charges will be arraigned this afternoon in United States District Court in Los Angeles. Federal prosecutors intend to file writs to take into federal custody defendants named in the indictment who are currently in state custody.
An indictment contains allegations that a defendant has committed a crime. Every defendant is presumed to be innocent until and unless proven guilty in court.
In addition to the HIDTA Task Force and the Azusa Police Department, the following agencies participated in the investigation into the Azusa 13 gang: the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the United States Marshals Service; the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation; the Los Angeles County Probation Department; and the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.
Several agencies provided support during the investigation, including LA IMPACT, the California Highway Patrol, the Arcadia Police Department, the Covina Police Department, the West Covina Police Department, the Baldwin Park Police Department, the Irwindale Police Department, the Glendora Police Department, and the Pasadena Police Department
Assisting in this morning’s takedown were the Hawthorne Police Department, the Monrovia Police Department, the Foothill Special Enforcement Team, the Ontario Police Department, the South Gate Police Department, the Bell Gardens Police Department and the Long Beach Police Department.
While several federal indictments in Los Angeles have made allegations of crimes targeting African-Americans, the case against Azusa 13 is only the second in which federal civil rights statutes have been used to address racist gang-related activity. In the first case, four members of the Avenues street gang received sentences of life without parole in federal prison for their roles in the racially motivated murders of two African-Americans in Highland Park