Authorities have opened an investigation into alleged abusive practices by Cudahy code enforcement officers against illegal corn vendors, who say they have been roughed up and forced to turn over their earnings.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department launched the probe after a young vendor complained that he was beaten then dumped in Santa Monica with orders never to come back to Cudahy.
Officials deny the accusations, saying the vendors are hardly credible because they are lawbreakers. Most have received numerous citations for illegal vending.
"I'm sure they're going to allege a lot of things," said Cudahy City Manager George Perez.
But others say unscrupulous officers take advantage of the immigrants, considering them safe targets unlikely to complain to authorities. "These code enforcement folks perceive [the vendors] to be undocumented. That's why they pick on them," said Luis Carrillo, a civil rights attorney representing the vendors.
Cudahy, a densely populated city in southeast Los Angeles County, is a magnet for immigrants peddling corn and other foods popular with Latinos. The city banned the practice years ago for health reasons, but the street salesmen remain a constant presence.
The vendors, most of them young, recent immigrants from Puebla, Mexico, say they risk being cited because they sell more corn in Cudahy than other cities. On a good day, they can clear as much as $90 selling corn from the shopping carts they push up and down the city's streets.
But the young men say officers have been cracking down extra hard in recent months.
Saqueo Leal, 18, who has been cited six times, said he was choked and handcuffed and then punched in the stomach with a baton-like weapon.
Leal said he was eventually driven to Santa Monica and told that he will need a gun the next time he goes to Cudahy.
Another vendor, 17-year-old Lorenzo Perez Valencia, said he was driven to a bridge near Paramount and told he would be deported if he ever returned to the city. Valencia said the officer elbowed him numerous times while he was in the car.
Leal, Valencia and at least two other vendors also accuse officers of taking money from them. They say the officers confront them near the end of the day when they know the vendors are likely to have sold much of their products.
The men say they have never encountered such treatment in several other cities, including Long Beach, El Monte, Huntington Park and South Gate.
Cudahy officials dismiss the allegations. They say the city has two code enforcement officers who only cite vendors and, in some cases, impound the food and equipment.
"They're a hard-working bunch of employees," said City Prosecutor Peter Langsfeld. "I just don't think that the allegations are true."