Hector Marroquin's Revenge

{mosimage}Connie Rice knew it all along. She knew that Hector Marroquin, veteran of the 18th Street Gang and a self-proclaimed anti-gang activist, was still in the life.

That’s what Rice stated last week, as news broke that Marroquin allegedly sold automatic rifles and silencers to undercover ATF agents on three separate occasions, between September and November.

On Tuesday, she reiterated her claim of knowing about Marroquin, and called on city officials to probe the $1.5 million in city funds that his anti-gang program, No Guns, received.

“What did that money produce? I know Hector did some good work on the Eastside, but if one dime went to his Mr. Hyde life, then there must be an investigation,” she said.

Marroquin’s alleged gun sales came three months after the city cut its ties to him over nepotism and misuse of funds from L.A. Bridges — a 10-year-old, $100 million sinkhole created by the Los Angeles City Council that has produced no tangible results, according to Rice’s $500,000 city-funded report on how to solve the gang problem.

The irony of such a surprising claim by Rice, a civil rights warhorse and former police commissioner, was thick — considering that her report was drafted by anti-gang program leaders at Toberman Settlement House, the very people who in 2003 hired No Guns as a city subcontractor to work with kids.

But Rice’s take on L.A. Bridges’ second embarrassment of the week — the first being the sentencing of another of the city’s purported anti-gang program leaders, Mario Corona, for possession of a pound of methamphetamine and a handgun — was nothing compared to the scrambling for cover by L.A.’s elected officials.

From Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo to Councilman Tony Cardenas, head of the City Council’s Ad Hoc Committee on Gang Violence, the reaction was underwhelming as the District Attorney’s Office charged Marroquin and his girlfriend Sylvia Arellano with five counts each of selling automatic weapons.

Marroquin is expected in court June 21. If convicted on all counts, including gang charges, he and Arellano could each receive up to 50 years in prison.

So, were Marroquin and Corona — a leader in Communities in Schools, operated by anti-gang activist Blinky Rodriguez — just isolated incidents? Did any public official or City Hall insider — besides Rice, that is — see warning signs, a decade old and examined by the L.A. Weekly last December? That story explored, in detail, Marroquin’s multiple arrests on gun charges and urgent claims by gang investigators that he was dirty.

If any Los Angeles politicians did see the warning signs, what did they do about suspicions that a so-called former gangster was, in Rice’s words, “using the system”?

Villaraigosa was off to Washington, D.C., to talk to Congress about gangs. His press deputy Janelle Erickson said, “This should not have happened.” Cardenas, who acknowledges he is friends with Blinky Rodriguez, a former professional kickboxer turned anti-gang activist, did not return calls. In a written statement, Rocky Delgadillo, who claims that gang reduction is a cornerstone of his administration, said, “The Marroquin and Corona cases demonstrate the need for rigorous and critical evaluation of the city’s Bridges program by the City Controller.”

City Controller Laura Chick said she needs more funding to “begin this important work as soon as possible.”

Last Wednesday, federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents arrested Marroquin at his Downey home for selling three assault rifles, a machine gun and silencers to an undercover ATF agent.

But when city officials embraced Marroquin’s program, he already had a loaded background, like most anti-gang leaders. After a couple of decades with the 18th Street Gang, he claimed to have gone straight in 1996 after being shot while defending his son from unknown attackers. (See “Broken Bridges,” L.A. Weekly, Dec. 15-21, 2006.)

Although he was supported by former state Senator Tom Hayden and others, warning signs about Marroquin’s No Guns program surfaced before the city paid him $1.5 million to keep kids out of gangs. In 2003, he lost an L.A. County Probation Department contract that involved driving children from school to gang-diversion programs, when officials found his record-keeping lax, and a family member he hired as a driver failed a criminal-background check.

{mosimage}More troubling suspicions arose even earlier. In 2000, L.A. Sheriff’s Deputy Richard Valdemar, a now-retired sergeant in the prison-gang unit, wrote memos to the highest levels of Sheriff Lee Baca’s department, identifying Marroquin as an alleged Mexican Mafia associate who was enforcing drug turf and ordering gang hits.

Wes McBride, a former Sheriff’s deputy, now the head of the California Gang Investigators Association, says he spoke with Baca in early 2006 when Marroquin was charged with gun possession. “I’m sure Baca knew,” McBride says. “I told him myself. The problem is getting the brass to listen.”

McBride says he is unsure if Baca ever warned L.A. police Chief William Bratton. “I don’t know anything about this,” says Baca spokesman Steve Whitmore. “I’m swamped with this Paris Hilton thing.”

Bratton did not respond to requests for comment.

Other L.A. city officials ignored explicit warnings. An intelligence report from a local police agency to Deputy City Attorney Liz Greenwood in 2001, on the eve of a scheduled meeting between Marroquin and Delgadillo, warned that Marroquin’s daughter, Charleeda, then an officer of No Guns, had been arrested in connection with the burning and mutilating of the body of her boyfriend, Hector “Clumsy” Romero. Charleeda Marroquin was arrested after No Guns employees insisted that her boyfriend had shot himself while playing Russian roulette — at the blood-spattered No Guns office.

“You’d think that would trigger some questions,” Rice said on Tuesday. “I’ll bet it didn’t happen.”

Yet the city chose to fund No Guns, a subcontractor of Toberman Settlement House, a decades-old community organization. Bill Martinez, a program director at Toberman, says Marroquin was good at stopping major violence before it occurred. He says he heard troubling reports about Marroquin, but that such talk is often motivated by personal beefs from rival program leaders.

{mosimage}Martinez claims that, even if Marroquin has ties to the Mexican Mafia, it would be in the Mafia’s interests to prevent children from killing one another. “Keep violence down, it’s better for organized crime,” he says. “But you can’t play both sides. You can’t do this work if you’re dirty.”

Veteran law enforcers say they believe that the Mexican Mafia wanted a piece of the public money Marroquin was collecting from the L.A. Bridges program.

Asked who is responsible when criminal and other problems arise among the 25 or so L.A. Bridges anti-gang programs that hire former gangsters, Martinez replies, “That’s just it, the police don’t talk to us and I’m not so sure people in the city talk to each other. No one in the city polices these contracts. If we act as fiscal watchdogs, that takes time away from our community work.”

McBride is unimpressed by such finger-pointing. “This is a case of political correctness gone wrong. Everyone wanted Marroquin to be the real thing so bad, they overlooked [his] double life,” he says.

While Villaraigosa and Delgadillo continue to promote anti-gang initiatives as top priorities, Martinez, who helped draft Rice’s report, says, “The mayor felt out of the loop. Now he is looking for a gang czar. The city attorney is supposed to be using nonprofit organizations to provide family counseling, but most of that money goes to law enforcement.”

Villaraigosa’s spokeswoman, Erickson, replies that gang suppression is “working,” and that his strategy promises “coordination, communication and accountability.”

Such approaches, Martinez argues, repeat failed patterns of the last 25 years. “The mayor went off and came back with the FBI, which creates a police state. He says he’s progressive, but we haven’t seen it yet.”

Commander Patrick Gannon of the city’s South Bureau, a gang expert, says the city must get a grip on such issues. “How do you make sure people working for you are on the up-and-up, when those people need to have credibility with gangs to be effective? You can’t hand out halos and you can’t turn a blind eye.

“It comes down to trust. Police need to trust gang-intervention programs — and programs need to be worthy of that trust. It comes down to, what’s our responsibility as a community, and as human beings, to solve gang violence?”

For more on this story, read Jefrrey Anderson's "Did City Hall Fund a Gun-Runner?"

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