About two dozen alleged members of the Mara Salvatrucha street gang in Los Angeles have pleaded not guilty to grand jury indictment charges of extortion that include threatening Hollywood area food truck vendors and demanding “rent” payments or “taxes.”
Last week, Los Angeles police arrested more than 25 people for extortion, possession and theft. Some are being held on bails ranging from $1 million up to $3 million. A few suspects were released on smaller bail bonds.
“This is an area that has been plagued by Mara Salvatrucha-13 gang members for at least four decades,” said Cpt. Beatrice Girmala, commanding officer of LAPD’s Hollywood division.
Based on the indictment, the alleged gang members would demand weekly "rent" from street vendors selling food, fruit and flowers in the southeast area of Hollywood. Some payments were as low as $10 a week; others were as high as $100, depending on how good business was.
Tip leads to investigation
The investigation began in February with a tip to street cop, said police officials. Officer Eddie Guerra with LAPD’s Gang Enforcement Detail followed up on the tip.
“I actually grew up in this city and we know about this issue,” Guerra said.
In February, police arrested a MS-13 gang member on a gang injunction violation. Police say that gang member helped investigators gather specific information about which members of MS-13 hit up food vendors for “taxes.”
Investigators interviewed neighbors and food vendors. It took weeks to gather information from more than a dozen victims, some of whom received death threats, Guerra said.
“Criminal street gangs make their living extorting the weak,” said Chief Beck.
Beck said he was proud of the operation because it took finesse to gain the victims’ trust, some who come from countries where authority is feared for good reason.
Policing neighborhoods where undocumented immigrants live illegally in the U.S. has been a sticky issue for law enforcement agencies. Officials say crime sometimes goes unreported because victims distrust authorities and fear being deported.
When a reporter asked Beck about how to balance protecting food truck vendors from gang members and ticketing them for illegal vending, the chief said the LAPD can’t condone illegal activity—but there is a level of trust to maintain.
“If somebody is a victim of extortion, that is a much more serious crime and has a much broader impact on a community than illegal vending,” Beck said. “We would be more than happy to work with any vendor, any victim.”
Complaints about police tactics in raids
Some family members of the 20 suspects arrested last week complained about the way LAPD officers stormed their homes to search for alleged gang members.
Shirley Huizar, 29, was arrested early Thursday morning at her house in La Puente. Police were looking for her boyfriend, whom authorities claim is an MS-13 gang member. Huizar said she doesn’t believe he is a gang member.
“Not that I know of,” she said.
Huizar said she police told her she was arrested for grand theft auto for a car parked outside of her house. When she was released, authorities told her she was being charged with grand theft of a firearm, she said. Huizar claims police didn't find a weapon at her home or at her storage unit.
“I asked if I can get a phone call to call my job or my kids and they said 'no.' So I lost my house and my job because of something I don’t even know what I am being charged with,” Huizar said.
Her three children were taken into the custody of the county Department of Children and Family Services.
Rudy Sanchez and his 18-year old daughter were detained early Thursday while police searched their house in Hollywood. Sanchez said they were looking for his stepson, who works at a hotel and lives in East L.A. with a girlfriend.
His daughter Erika Gomez said police wouldn’t show her the arrest warrant. She refuted allegations that her brother is a MS-13 gang member.
“If that was true, he would be having a nice car," she said. "He would have money. He wouldn’t be asking my dad for money if he did all these things."
In all, 20 suspects with alleged ties to the street gang were arrested last week. Five others named in the extortion indictment were already in jail or in prison.
The bail amounts for some were set at $1 million to $3 million dollars because of street gang enhancements and multiple serious counts, according to the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office. All suspects named in the indictment are facing life sentences.