A novel decision by law enforcement to use hate crime laws along with organized crime statutes to bring down the leader of a brutal Southern California gang has won praise from victims and a promise from law enforcement to do more.
Santiago Rios, 48, was sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison on Monday, after pleading guilty not just to breaking racketeering laws, but to violating the civil rights of African-Americans who lived in the area around Azusa where he operated.
Latino and African-American gangs have long targeted each other in Southern California, just as jailhouse groups have divided themselves along racial lines. But residents of the Azusa neighborhoods where Rios operated say he and his operatives, who were Latino, pointedly targeted African-Americans for beatings and crime.
“My son’s been jumped, my daughter’s been jumped and I have almost been snatched and kidnapped,” said resident Penny Johnson.
For years, such attacks were rampant in the community, frustrating local police to the point where the Azusa Police Department made stopping them a top priority, said Sgt. Tim Harrington.
"This gang was targeting innocent people just trying to live their lives," Harrington said. "And we never forgot about that."
In one incident, Harrington said, a firebomb was thrown through the windows of the home where an African-American family lived.
Working with the Drug Enforcement Agency and the U.S. Attorney's office, Azusa police spent years on the case, finally arresting Rios in 2011. He pleaded guilty last May.
U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte, Jr., said his office teamed up with the DEA and local police to investigate Rios and bring the case against him.
Using hate crime laws, he said, was a new technique that prosecutors would likely continue to use.
He compared it to prosecutors’ initial attempts to use racketeering laws against Southern California gangs.
It’s common now do to so, but those laws were initially written in the 1970s, and meant to target mob-style organized crime. Use of the federal Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) law against street gangs came later.
Now, Birotte said, hate crime laws would now be part of law enforcement’s growing arsenal in the fight against gang-related crime.
“The message,” he said, “is that we’re coming.”