20 reputed gang members accused of extorting food trucks

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 on 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 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 that yielded 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 in the custody of Los Angeles County Children and Family Services. They said they were unaware of their loved ones’ possible ties to gangs.

The extent of the alleged scheme was not spelled out in the indictment, but the court documents released Monday allege that the crimes date from 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 the gang’s territory near Western Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard.

Juarez then allegedly sent other gang members to “threaten and coerce” Lara to start paying, the indictment states. In addition to “rent” of $30 to $50 each week, gang members demanded that Lara give them free food.

In another instance, the indictment alleges 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 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.”

It was the first street gang named to the list, and the designation allowed authorities to freeze financial assets of the gang and its members, and prohibited financial institutions from engaging in any transactions with gang members.

MS-13 began among Salvadoran refugees — many of them young ex-soldiers — who came to Los Angeles in the 1980s to escape civil war in their home country. Most of the refugees settled in the Pico-Union neighborhood and around MacArthur Park.

Ongoing crackdowns by the LAPD led the gang to branch out geographically and diversify its criminal activities into areas such as drugs, extortion and human trafficking. Authorities say MS-13 also spread into Central America and across the United States, penetrating the Eastern Seaboard.