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Tension Grips Project in Aftermath of Fire : Arson: Latinos and blacks blame each other for inferno that killed four people in apartment at Jordan Downs.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The smell of smoke still hung in the air above the charred apartment Sunday as conflicting stories swept through Jordan Downs. Like many things in the sprawling public housing project, the talk reflected the tensions between blacks and Latinos.

Early Saturday morning, some men doused the apartment with gasoline and set off an inferno. Four people died, and 2-year-old Veronica Lopez was severely burned. The family blamed black drug dealers, who they said ran away.

“They got it wrong,” one black resident said Sunday, disputing the family’s version. “It was three Mexican guys running away.”

A few yards away in another apartment unit, Cesar Buenrostros, a friend of the family, was incredulous at such comments Sunday morning.

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“How can they say that--I saw three black guys running away,” he said in Spanish. “If they try to do something else to us, maybe we might fight back . . . four dead and two in the hospital. We’re not going to let them do anything else to us.”

The motive for the arson is unknown--maybe retaliation by drug dealers, perhaps hatred between ethnic groups--but residents said Sunday it has left a scar in the tiny society that exists among the crowded collection of Watts apartments called Jordan Downs.

Mary Moore, a black resident of Jordan Downs, downplayed the tension between blacks and Latinos, saying that violence in the projects is everywhere and can touch anyone, regardless of race.

“All it takes is one jerk,” Moore said. “I’m black. I’ve lived here for four years and I’m constantly afraid. It doesn’t matter what race you are, it’s perilous times. They’ll kill you for nothing.”

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Bruce Polite, another resident, said that perhaps it was not the family’s race but its isolation and unfamiliarity with the unwritten rules of the projects that made them easy targets for violence.

“If I was in a Mexican neighborhood, I would be outcast,” he said.

Los Angeles Police Sgt. J. D. Allen, in charge of the foot beats at the project, said there is no way to avoid the racial tensions in the rapidly changing area, once mostly black but now increasingly Latino.

“It’s kind of like a time bomb,” he said.

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Killed were Martha Zuniga, 22, her two children, Juan Carlos, 5, and Claudia, 4, and their great-grandmother, Margarita Hernandez, 78. Two-year-old Veronica, who was shielded from the flames by her great-grandmother, was reported Sunday in grave condition at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center. Juan Zuniga, 65, was in serious condition.

Fire investigators have determined that the front door of the apartment was doused with gasoline or another flammable liquid and set ablaze.

Police have described the suspects as three black men, but caution that the description is from interviews with family members. No arrests have been made.

Maria Alvarez, 32, a mother of five who lives in the building next to the torched apartment, said the arson was part of a longstanding conflict between blacks and Latinos in the housing project.

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She said she has been beaten twice by black youths and her apartment broken into several times. “They always do this to the Mexicans. They say Watts is only for black people,” Alvarez said, adding that she intends to move out of her apartment Tuesday. “They say this place is for all. “They say this place is for all black people--our place is downtown.”

Hilda Esparza, another neighbor, said she has been afraid for all of the six months she and her family have lived in Jordan Downs.

“The kids are scared too,” she said in Spanish. “They saw everything and they’re afraid their house will be burned too.”

Some black residents agree that the increasing number of Latinos, who now make up about a fifth of the 2,500 people in Jordan Downs, have fostered bitter feelings.

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Rhonda Price, a 21-year-old black resident, said of her Latino neighbors: “I like them and I get along with them well, but a lot of people wish they weren’t here because they feel like they’re taking over.”

The change in Jordan Downs is part of a broader transformation that has swept Watts and South-Central Los Angeles over the past decade. Once considered the heart of the largest black community in the western United States, the area has become a Latino center.

Along with the bitter feelings have also come efforts to help smooth the transition in Jordan Downs. When the fire broke out, Buenrostros said, one black neighbor, Gregory Moore, ran to help the family fight the fire. Police said Moore was shot by Juan Zuniga, but Buenrostros said he believes it was a mistake. He said Moore, who remained in critical condition Sunday, has often gone to the assistance of the Latino families in the nearby apartments.

Early Sunday morning, one black resident walked through the project asking for donations to give to the family. Price gave $5.

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