Two Latino men from Compton pleaded guilty Thursday in federal court to committing hate crimes against four African-Americans which included a beating with a metal pipe.
Jeffery Aguilar, 20, and Efren Marquez, 22, changed their pleas from not guilty to guilty. Prosecutors allege they are members of the Compton Varrio 155 gang, which prosecutors say uses violence and threats to try and drive African-American residents out of Compton.
Aguilar and Marquez are the first to be convicted in the Los Angeles-area under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The federal law was signed by President Obama in 2009.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Reema el-Amamy said hate crime convictions are difficult.
“You have to prove the motive for the attack,” she said. “In this case, the defendants both admitted that race and color were substantial motivating factors of the attack.”
On December 31st of last year, Aguilar and Marquez chased a 17-year-old black teenager who was walking in the street. The teen ran to a friend’s house, where there were three other youngsters. The two gang members yelled racial slurs at the group and then assaulted one of them. Aguilar took a metal pipe and hit one of the teens in the head. Marquez threatened to shoot another with a gun.
U.S. District Court Judge Terry Hatter took a whole hour to question the two gang members, making sure they understood the crimes they were pleading guilty to.
“I assaulted him, sir,” Aguilar told the judge when asked what he’d done. Later, Hatter told him he didn’t have to plead guilty if he didn’t think he was. Aguilar hesitated for a moment until the judge compelled him to speak up.
“I committed a crime so…I don’t have an answer,” Aguilar said.
Three women who were friends and family members of the defendants sat in the back of the courtroom. One sobbed silently, wiping tears from her face with her shirt.
The lengthy questioning continued with co-defendant Marquez, who said he understood that he faces at least 10 years in prison.
His voice dropped a few decibels when the judge asked him why he threatened to shoot the teenager that New Year’s Eve night.
“I was just…not me,” Marquez said. He said he didn’t have a weapon, but admitted that he did threaten the teen.
Judge Hatter will sentence the two men in January after he obtains written reports from prosecutors, the probation department, the victims and relatives of the defendants. He asked the defendants to write to him as well.
“I hope you will sit down and write to me,” he one of the defendants. “Tell me about your life, your future, about this offense. Young man, you have your whole life ahead you.”
Hate crime in Los Angeles County fell by about six percent last year compared to 2011. But the county’s Human Relations Commission says the number of hate crimes committed by gang members are up, especially violence committed by Latino gangs against African-Africans.
At a news conference earlier this month, L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca said that in 2011 there were 75 gang related hate crimes; In 2012, it increased to 91.
“This kind of warfare between gangs is another indicative example of how manifested hate goes further, creates violence and murder and those tragedies that cannot be erased in the families of those who are the victims,” Baca said.
The case against Aguilar and Marquez is an extreme example of racial tension in Compton and other traditionally black L.A. neighborhoods that have become increasingly Latino. It’s the first violent, racially motivated hate crime reported in Compton since 2010, when there were five such incidents, according to the Sheriff’s Department.
In the county’s latest hate crimes report, cities like Palmdale and Lancaster in the Antelope Valley have experienced a high number of hate crimes for its small population size. Staff at L.A. County's human relations commission say there’s been a lot of demographic change in that area over the last few years.