By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Seven suspected gang members who prosecutors say firebombed the homes of African-Americans in a bid to force them out of a government-funded housing development have been charged with a string of federal offences in an indictment unsealed on Thursday.
The seven defendants, who are all accused members or associates of the Big Hazard street gang, have also been charged in the 10-count federal indictment with running a racketeering enterprise that used violence and intimidation to control what they considered their turf.
"The defendants used firebombs to drive the victims from their homes because of their race, Vanita Gupta, chief of the U.S. Justice Department's civil rights division, said in a written statement announcing the indictment. "This is a hate crime. Such violence and intimidation have no place in our society."
According to the indictment, the firebombing plot was directed by 31-year-old Carlos Hernandez, also known by the monikers "Creeper" and "Rider," who told the gang in May 2014 that he wanted to drive the African-American families from the neighborhood.
The attack was carried out at the Ramona Gardens housing development in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles in the early morning hours of May 12, 2014, after Hernandez distributed gloves and disguises to gang members and instructed them on how to maximize the damage of their firebombs, the indictment charges.
The other six defendants named in the indictment were Jose Saucedo, aka "Lil Moe," 22, Francisco Farias, aka "Bones," 25, Joseue Garibay, aka "Malo," 23, Edwin Felix, aka "Boogie," 23, Jonathan Portillo, aka "Pelon," 21 and Joel Matthew Monarrez, aka "Gallo," 21.
Each is charged with conspiracy to violate civil rights, attempted arson of federal property, committing a violent crime in aid of racketeering and other federal charges. If convicted on all counts at trial, they face maximum sentences of more than 100 years in federal prison.
According to the indicment, the Big Hazard - or "Hazard Grande" - street gang has some 350 members and dates to the 1940s, claiming territory in East Los Angles that includes parts of Boyle Heights and the Ramona Gardens housing development.
Court documents say Big Hazard is part of a larger network of Latino gangs in greater Los Angeles controlled by senior members who are also associated with the Mexican Mafia or "La Eme."
(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb, editing by G Crosse)