Across the Hall of Justice in downtown Los Angeles, Celina and Jonathan Abarca stood in front of hundreds of people Wednesday afternoon to demand justice for their cousin Andrés Guardado, who was fatally shot by a sheriff’s deputy last week.
Two deputies with the L.A. County Sheriff's Office saw Guardado talking to someone in a car on West Redondo Beach Boulevard when he looked at the deputies, “produced a handgun” and started running away, Capt. Kent Wegener, head of the homicide bureau, said at a news conference Saturday.
After chasing Guardado into an alley in the back of a building, one of the deputies shot Guardado six times, hitting him in the upper torso, Wegener said. Guardado was pronounced dead at the scene.
“At first, I thought it was maybe an accident. But when I started watching the news, I realized it wasn’t," Fernando López, also a cousin of Guardado, told NBC News, remembering the moment his family received a phone call with news of the tragedy.
The police have not said what prompted the shooting. Authorities have not yet released the names of the deputies involved, but sources close to the case identified them as Deputies Miguel Vega, who opened fire, and Chris Hernandez, who didn't shoot, the Los Angeles Times reported.
"He ran because he was afraid, because what 18-year-old wouldn't be afraid," Celina Abarca said before she broke down crying on Jonathan’s shoulder. “That’s not OK."
The killing has drawn protests, with officials’ failure to explain what led to the shooting outraging many who say the deputies’ actions were unjustified.
Family members saying Guardado was shot in the back, while Wegener said autopsy results would determine that. The sheriff's office currently has a hold on releasing those results, The Los Angeles Times reported.
One reason details around what prompted the incident remain unclear is that the officers didn’t have body cameras, and investigators have struggled to access surveillance video from the alley where the shooting took place.
At the scene, investigators recovered a modified .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol that appeared to have been pieced together from different parts. It had no markings or serial number and had not been fired, according to Wegener, leading police to believe that Guardado didn’t fire the gun.
Guardado wasn't a recognized "licensed security officer" in the state of California, the sheriff's department said in a statement, and he wasn't wearing anything “indicating he was working in the capacity of a security guard.” Wegener added that Guardado also wasn't 21, "which is required to be an armed security guard in the state of California.”
Guardado’s friends and family are ramping up efforts to seek answers and demand accountability from authorities as they mourn his death.
"They demand, and deserve, full transparency from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department regarding the facts surrounding the death of this young man. We will not rest until these facts are fully disclosed," Adam Shea, founding partner of Panish Shea & Boyle LLP, the law firm representing the family, told NBC News in a statement.
Family members have gathered every night since the shooting in front of a homemade altar displaying Guardado’s high school graduation picture, surrounded by flowers and candles, to pray the rosary, a Salvadoran tradition meant to ensure that a loved one’s soul rests in peace, said López.
Some of the last memories López has of his cousin are from family gatherings when they would eat “carne asada” and “go to the pool,” but Guardado’s most memorable quality was his sense of humor, he said.
“I want people to recognize the good in him because he was the kind of person that would get along with anyone, and we all loved him very much,” López said.
Noé Abarca, Guardado’s uncle, has a sign with his nephew’s photo in front of his restaurant, saying “justice for Andrés Guardado.” According to Noé, the Local 11 workers union is doing a “car protest” Thursday morning alongside West Redondo Beach Boulevard, where Guardado was killed.
The union said in a statement that Guardado's father, Cristóbal Guardado, was "a hardworking cook and a loyal member" of the union for over 14 years.
Relatives have been attending protests since Sunday as they urge for an independent investigation.
Reps. Nanette Díaz Barragán and Maxine Waters, both Democrats from California, urged California Attorney General Xavier Becerra “to conduct a full investigation into this incident.”
A spokesperson from Becerra’s office told NBC News in an email that the office was “unable to comment” to protect the integrity of the investigation.
Guardado’s shooting came days after Becerra announced “a broad agenda for police reform aimed at improving use-of-force procedures, addressing issues around bias in policing, and increasing accountability and transparency” and weeks after sending a letter urging Congress to give state attorneys general “clear statutory authority under federal law to investigate and resolve patterns or practices of unconstitutional policing.”
Influencers in the Latino community, such as Lizza Monét Morales, as well as actress Diane Guerrero, author Julissa Arce and the immigrant rights organization CHIRLA, have been using their platforms to raise awareness on Guardado’s case.
Guardado's killing is one of the latest high-profile incidents of police-involved shootings of Latinos. Data analyzed by The Washington Post shows that Latinos have been the second-highest demographic killed by police, after Black Americans, for the past five years.
“This cannot keep happening,” Celina Abarca said at the Wednesday rally. “I want to join each and every family that is here today and we will fight to make a change. Together change will come and we will be stronger than they have ever been.”
“The police need to stop killing us,” López said.