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By Miriam Raftery


May 6, 2010 (El Cajon) –On Monday, April 26, a man with a shaved head banged his knuckles against the office window of a prominent Latino rights leader in El Cajon and issued a death threat. 


Since then, vandalism and a break-in have occurred, raising concerns that a prominent Latino organizer here may be the target of hate-motivated crimes. Now the victims are fighting back--determined not to let threats of violence intimidate them into silence.


“He said, `I hate you, you F…ing bitch. I know who you are and I know what you do. I’m going to kill you,” recalled Julie Contreras, who was seated at the desk of Estela de Los Rios, a nationally prominent Latino activist, in the Center for Social Advocacy office when the chilling threat occurred.


Three days later, graffiti reading “bitch” marred the door. This morning, she arrived to find her window shattered; her black Dell laptop computer and stand were stolen and outside security lights mounted about eight feet off the ground were broken.


“The El Cajon Police should have taken this seriously the first time,” de los Rios told East County Magazine, seated at her desk topped by shattered glass. She said police initially dismissed the threat and suggested the individual might be a homeless person, even though Contreras insisted he was dressed in clean clothing and “looked like a poster boy for the white Aryan brotherhood.”


Contreras described the man as a bald-headed Caucasian with very fair skin and very bright blue eyes. “He had chiseled cheeks and a narrow jaw,” she told ECM in a phone interview today, adding that the man was in his mid- to late-40s or early 50s and wore a black T-shirt, long black shorts down to his shins, and gym shoes.


For Contreras, an immigrant rights leader from Chicago and organizer for the League of United Latin American Citizens, the experience was terrifying. “I’ve been a victim of a hate crime before,” she said. “I literally got shot in the head…you feel like you’ve been raped.” Confronted by the man at the window around 7pm, she grabbed a letter owner and wielded it as a weapon while dialing 911.


De Los Rios has sought support from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which tracks hate groups nationwide, as well as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).  The ADL is offering a $2,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the suspect.


“We find it particularly atrocious when individuals threatening violence try to mute the message, whether one agrees with the message or not,” said Morris Casuto, regional director of the ADL, adding that his organization has worked with De Los Rios for many years. Casuto said the FBI has been notified but does not consider the matter a federal issue.


Following today’s break-in, police took fingerprints and conducted interviews, El Cajon Police Captain Jim Redman confirmed. “We will be contacting the witness in Chicago to try and get a more detailed description,” he added. “At this point, we believe the incidents may be related.” There have been similar break-ins in the area, he said, but no other threats of this nature. Law enforcement identified additional graffiti on the property as gang-related, he said.


Casuto said police are “clearly taking this seriously now,”Casuto adding that it’s premature to determine whether the crimes were hate-motivated until the perpetrator is apprehended.


It is unclear which of the women the stalker intended as his primary target. De Los Rios had been on TV shortly before the death threat was made, speaking out against the Arizona immigrant law which she believes will lead to racial profiling and discrimination. She is a co-founder of the national immigrant marches and organized a hate crimes summit last fall in El Cajon.


De Los Rios and Contreras fault El Cajon Police Chief Pat Sprecco for not taking the initial threat seriously. Contreras said officers who responded to the first call didn’t ask her to look over potential suspects, such as known white supremacist gang members, or visit transient camps in the area.


“They brushed it off. I was appalled,” said Contreras, who returned to Chicago soon after the incident. If I’d seen a picture, I could definitely identify him,” she said of the suspect. Nor did Police ask her to work with a composite sketch artist to create a drawing of the suspect, even though she stared directly into his eyes from a distance of only a few feet away. “The El Cajon Police need to come into the 20th Century,” she said. “There are between 12 and 20 hate groups in this area. This was not a coincidence.”


De Los Rios said her landlord has been unhelpful. “He won’t even replace the window. He told us we brought this on ourselves, that this is our fault…This is just an example of how a victim feels when their freedom of speech is violated.”



“To the degree that an individual and a community can be silenced by these threats, everyone’s freedom is imperiled,” Casuto said.


De Los Rios has no intention of backing down on her efforts to help immigrants and other local people in need, however. Security is being beefed up and other precautions will be taken to protect workers and volunteers, she said.


“I will continue to do what we do,” she resolved, “and that’s the protection of our civil and human rights.”


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