Notorious gang extorted food truck operators, prosecutors allege
At least 20 reputed members of one of Los Angeles’ most notorious gangs have been indicted in connection with a violent extortion racket that targeted food truck operators in the Hollywood area over at least five years, according to state grand jury records unsealed Monday in a downtown courtroom.
The 20 defendants — including four women — named in indictments returned Jan. 28 are allegedly tied to Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13. The individuals, charged with extortion and conspiracy to commit extortion, are all being held in lieu of bail ranging from $2 million to just more than $3 million.
At least five other individuals are also under indictment but were not named because details in the grand jury indictments against them remain sealed, authorities said. It was not clear what sentences the defendants could face.
The victims of the alleged organized shakedown were not the popular four-wheeled foodie cuisine servers, such as the Kogi BBQ truck, but those serving blue-collar workers at construction sites, according to several law enforcement sources familiar with the case.
Most of the arrests took place early Thursday within the LAPD’s Hollywood Patrol Division and were the culmination of a yearlong investigation involving more than 200 officers and yielding weapons and narcotics, the sources said.
Family members of some defendants decried what they described as heavy-handed tactics by police, including handcuffing relatives rousted out of their homes in the early morning and placing children of some defendants in the custody of Children and Family Services. They said they were unaware of their relatives’ possible ties to gangs.
The extent of the alleged shakedown scheme was not spelled out in the indictment, but the court documents released Monday allege the crimes date back to summer 2007 and involved at least three food vendors.
According to court records, that was when a defendant identified as Marlon Juarez ordered food truck operator Dany Lara to start paying “rent” money to MS-13 if he wanted to operate his business in their territory near Western Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard.
Juarez then sent other members of the gang to “threaten and coerce” Lara to start paying up, the indictment states. In addition to “rent” of $30 to $50 each week, other gang members demanded Lara to provide them free food.
In another instance, the indictment alleges that a defendant identified as Juan Gomez threatened to kill food truck operator Juan Mendieta in October 2012 if his employees did not pay rent money.
The violent reputation of MS-13, which was born in Los Angeles, is well documented and in recent years has captured the attention of authorities across the country. In October, federal officials designated Mara Salvatrucha as a “transnational criminal organization.”
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-- Andrew Blankstein