Erin Antoch | Staff Writer
For many students, it can be hard to imagine Azusa as anything other than a sunny, Christ-loving bubble in Southern California. The awareness of any violent activity spans only as far as the periodic Campus Safety emails that alert students to criminal activity nearby. Sure, Azusa isn’t the safest place to live in the United States, but it is a city flooded with Jesus-loving citizens, celebrates diversity and is run by a humble mayor who is adored by many. But this is the Azusa of 2017. A little over ten years ago, the city’s streets were some of the deadliest to walk down in Los Angeles County.
At that time, Azusa was home to the infamous Varrio Azusa 13, a Latino street gang that aimed its violence toward the black population and sought to eradicate it from the city.
The gang originated in the 1960s with over 200 active members and with ties to the Mexican Mafia. Through murder, intimidation and terror, the Azusa 13 committed hate crimes against black citizens, often requiring new gang members to commit crimes against them in order to gain membership.
Adrian Greer, an Azusa native, graduated from Covina’s Gladstone High School in 2004 and recalls just how prevalent the gang was. Greer was a target of racially- motivated crime as a black male in the area.
“I remember being 6 or 7 years old, and running around throwing up the Azusa 13 symbol and claiming I was part of it, just because ‘A13’ was spray painted everywhere,”
Greer said. “I had no idea what it meant or that I would be a target, but it was just so normal.”
The Azusa 13 peaked in the 1990s and early 2000s as the number of hate crimes hit the highest point in Azusa’s history. According to a 2011 article in the Redlands Daily Facts, there were an average of 10 racially-motivated hate crimes per year between 1992 and 1998, but the number reached 17 hate crimes per year in 1999 and 2000. The gang’s scope was extensive both socially and territorially, as evidenced by hundreds of members and graffitied gang symbols throughout the city. Some citizens still remember the days when particular areas were too unsafe to even walk through.
“The first time I experienced it was when I was in seventh grade,” Greer said. “I was in a burger joint with some of my friends, and a man came up to me and said ‘You don’t belong here, n–. Go back to Compton.”
Greer said that was when he really started noticing the gang violence. It began to affect him and his friends.
“I got in fights at school. One of my friend’s houses was set on fire,” Greer said. “There were streets I avoided entirely, just because I knew how dangerous they were for somebody like me. One of my friends was shot and killed; I think that’s when it was all very sobering for me. It’s hard to imagine, but it was all here in Azusa.”
In the mid-to-late 2000s, the city of Azusa, led by Mayor Joseph Rocha, started working aggressively to heal racial schisms in the community. The Azusa City Council came together and created the Human Relations Commission, which aimed to ease tensions through outreach and education.
“Things started to change when I became an adult,” Greer said. “I haven’t experienced anything like that in my adult life.”
Since 2006, Azusa has had a total of only seven hate crimes. The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, a law that works to prosecute those who engage in organized crime, helped the Azusa Police
Department arrest gang members and those who committed violent crimes.
In 2011, the Azusa Police Department indicted 51 members and associates of the Azusa 13 gang. Forty-nine of those arrested pled guilty to racketeering and drug- related crimes. The gang’s leader, Santiago Rios, received a sentence of nearly 20 years in federal prison, according to a 2013 article in Pasadena Star-News.
“It’s a difficult situation for any leadership to find themselves in. They knew they wouldn’t make everyone happy,” Greer said about the indictment of the 51 members. “Because you have to remember, those [police] raids left a lot of families without fathers, uncles and brothers. A lot of kids in the community grew up without their father figures and [the fathers] are still serving jail time. And the repercussions are still felt today.”
Despite his negative experiences, Greer has been an active member of the Azusa community for over a decade now, volunteering in various organizations throughout the city.
Greer recognized this problem of absent fathers due to the raids, and founded a Christ-centered nonprofit called MyThirdPlace. The organization serves as an afterschool program for high school and middle school students, offering tutoring and mentorship while also providing an alternative to a gang lifestyle.
“The biggest issue in Azusa today with the youth is that they have a lingering gang mentality, where they know what it is, but they aren’t necessarily associated,” Greer said. “They just want somewhere to belong, and gangs offer that. But so does MyThirdPlace.”
Greer, like others in the area, has witnessed the city heal from the past and sees only a healthy future.
“Azusa is deeply spiritual, and that has only come out more over the years. It definitely feels different than it ever did before.”