Sad price of gang ‘rent’

Times Staff Writer

The shooting death of a 23-day-old baby has sparked what officials hope will be Los Angeles’ most vigorous crackdown yet on gang members charging “rent” to merchants and vendors, a practice authorities believe is thriving despite an overall drop in crime.

Los Angeles police detectives and prosecutors say gangs have long charged “taxes” and “rent” to those working in underground economies: street vendors, prostitutes, drug dealers, some residents and immigrant business owners.

But as gang violence has declined in recent years, authorities said this extortion is increasing because there is less fighting among gangs, who have vetted major boundary disputes and have more time to focus on clamping down on their territories.

The Los Angeles Police Department has received 23 extortion complaints this year, compared with 10 for all of 2006. Although officials believe these numbers represent a tiny fraction of the larger problem, they said it suggests the problem is worsening.

The issue rose in prominence last month after gang members allegedly shot a merchant on 6th Street near MacArthur Park who had refused to pay $50 in “rent.” A stray bullet hit the baby boy, who was with his mother and hundreds of others in the marketplace.


In response, city officials and prosecutors are considering new efforts to combat gang extortion including:

Placing surveillance cameras in the crowded shopping districts in the MacArthur Park and Pico-Union areas to better understand how the extortion schemes work and build better cases against gangs.

Meeting with officials from El Salvador, who have experience dealing with gang extortion involving MS-13, which is also active in Los Angeles. Brian Truchon, the FBI’s former director of the MS-13 National Gang Task Force, said El Salvadoran authorities recently turned to video cameras after an MS-13 extortion ring squeezed millions of dollars from the country’s bus systems.

Assigning more officers to deal specifically with street vendor-related crime. The LAPD tried this strategy in the downtown Fashion District, where vendors and police say incidents of gang extortion are now low.

“This is really the core crime of 18th Street and MS-13,” said Deputy City Atty. Bruce Riordan, director of the office’s anti-gang operation. “When I started this job 15 years ago, the first day, the detectives took me out and said the No. 1 crime among these gangs is extortion, but said ‘it’s just so hard to prove.’ ”

Riordan and others said the rent problem extends beyond MacArthur Park to North Hills in the San Fernando Valley, the Eastside neighborhood around the Ramona Gardens housing project and in some areas of South Los Angeles.

Driving along Olympic Boulevard last month, Officer Randy McCain spotted an illegal vendor at Maple Avenue and jumped out of his cruiser. He told Julio Olivares, 19, that he had an hour and a half to get his dozens of hats and sunglasses off the corner or face arrest. Olivares appreciated the grace period.

“We don’t have a license to vend here,” Olivares said, packing Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees hats into a large brown box. “I’ll have to go and try and get a business permit from the city before I come back.” Olivares and his goods were gone in 45 minutes.

McCain is one of a handful of LAPD officers devoted to vending. On a Tuesday afternoon last month, he drove into the neighborhood with a can of orange spray paint, marking lines where legal businesses are permitted on the street, so that authorities could tell them from illegal vendors.

Officials believe cracking down on unauthorized vendors is crucial because they are vulnerable to extortion. Many are illegal immigrants -- and therefore reluctant to go to police or serve as official witnesses to the extortion, authorities said.

The LAPD points to McCain’s unit as a potential model for regulating street vendors and keeping gang extortion to a minimum. Olivares said he sets up shop in the Fashion District because there is less extortion there than other places, including MacArthur Park.

A year and half ago, 18th Street gang members began selling DVDs in the district, and police heard rumblings they were working to control the area by using extortion as a means to dominate the territory.

Raul Ortega, 23, a vendor in the Fashion District, said he won’t forget what happened when the 18th Street gang members asked him and fellow DVD vendors to pay them rent.

“We told them we wouldn’t pay,” Ortega said.

McCain said Ortega and several other vendors later got into a bloody fight with members of the gang. He said that a few days later on Maple Avenue, two gang members opened fire on two of the vendors involved in the brawl, wounding at least one of them.

The shooting marked a turning point. Vendors were shocked by the violence and worked with police to keep the gang at bay. Police officers began surveillance on gang members in the area, hoping the pressure would drive them away.

“We took their Polaroids, got their information, and told them, ‘If any one of these vendors tells us they are being extorted, we’re going to show them all of your pictures and if they pick you out, you’re going to jail,’ ” McCain said. “We told them, ‘That’s not going to happen out here.’ ”

For police, the relationship is touchy. Many vendors are working without permits, including Ortega, making them subject to arrest.

“Even people that I’ve arrested, they’re real comfortable with approaching me with things, because they know I’ll be straight with them,” McCain said.

As McCain drove around the Fashion District, street vendors ran up to his window to ask questions about specific regulations, a known gang member waved to him and smiled, and, with the windows rolled down, one could hear calls of “Hey Randy!” over the bustling street traffic.

The atmosphere is much different in the teeming neighborhoods of dense apartments and busy street shopping a few miles west of downtown.

Street vendors along 6th Street near MacArthur Park sell everything from Sunday dresses to fresh slices of watermelon and pineapple. They are quick to decry police enforcement of vending regulations and quicker to shut their mouths when asked about impuestos, or taxes, paid to gangs.

Police said gang extortion has produced an air of intimidation and fear for residents in those communities.

Getting someone who has been extorted to talk or be a witness against the gang is “so difficult,” Riordan said.

He pointed to the four-year investigation of 18th Street gang kingpin Ruben “Nite Owl” Castro, who is a member of the Mexican Mafia prison gang and is accused of running a highly sophisticated extortion ring of drug dealers and other illegal street peddlers in areas near Shatto Park, northwest of MacArthur Park.

Because it was so hard to get those who were being extorted to talk, police used wiretaps, undercover surveillance and inside sources to try to prove the racket.

Castro was named in a federal indictment in September 2006 along with more than a dozen members of the 18th Street gang. The case has yet to be tried, but Riordan, who was working as an assistant U.S. attorney at the time of the indictment, said the gang made money hand-over-fist, generating hundreds of thousands of dollars in profit from years of rent collection.

According to the indictment, “untimely payment of rent to [the] Ruben Castro Organization by a narcotics dealer often resulted in increased rent . . . [followed by] threatened and actual acts of violence.”

Riordan called extortion an “insidious” crime that is grossly underreported, and UCLA professor Jorja Leap, an advisor on gang issues to City Hall, said there is scarcely any literature and few in-depth academic studies on the subject.

Riordan said street vendors and others who are extorted by gangs are “either too scared to report” the crime or often don’t report the crime because “those who are paying rents and taxes to the gangs are involved in their own criminal activity.”

The Rev. Howard Dotson, of the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, said the problem may be underreported not only because vendors and peddlers fear the gangs, but also because they are illegal immigrants who fear deportation.

“The elephant in the room is that this community has a lot of people that are undocumented, and for them to interact with the LAPD, that’s a scary proposition,” said Dotson, who was a pallbearer at the infant’s funeral.

“The fear of your documentation status, I can’t imagine what it’s like to be in that situation and to be vulnerable and a victim of crime. That fear can be immobilizing when you have it coming from so many facets,” he said.

Robert Loosle, of the FBI’s criminal division in Los Angeles, said fear makes it difficult for authorities to be proactive about gang extortion.

“That intimidation is what perpetuates the ability to extort,” Loosle said. He speculated that if authorities had known about extortion involving the vendor shot on 6th Street, they might have been able to prevent the shooting.

“We don’t want to just be reactive,” he said.


Times staff writer Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.



18th Street gang

A mostly Latino immigrant gang, it formed in the early 1960s, partly in reaction to already established Latino gangs that claimed superiority over the newcomers.

The gang was born in Pico-Union near 18th Street and Union Avenue.

Could have as many as 20,000 members, though authorities say members are often loosely connected or not active, making the number hard to pinpoint.

There is no one leader or godfather. Instead, 18th Street is led by older members -- veteranos -- who preside over a loose-knit network of cliques. The veteranos of various cliques will often meet.

In 1996, on average, someone in Los Angeles County was assaulted or robbed by 18th Streeters every day.


Source: Times reporting