- The Washington Times - Monday, August 9, 2010

BELL, Calif. | The gang graffiti that coats freeway overpasses, exit signs and the concrete banks of the Los Angeles River attests to a problem more alarming than the recent revelations of hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual salaries for public officials.

Street gangs, a powerful prison gang known as the Mexican Mafia and even more powerful drug-trafficking organizations based in Mexico and Colombia operate freely in this small city and the similarly sized cities surrounding it.

News reports in recent weeks have focused on three Bell city officials who resigned on July 26 amid revelations that they were being paid up to $800,000 per year in a city of 36,000 where the average annual household income is less than $40,000. California Attorney General Jerry Brown on Monday announced that he issued subpoenas to current and former members of Bell’s city government, adding that his office also is investigating allegations of “possible illegal election conduct by Bell officials.”

But a central feature of life in Bell, and in neighboring cities Maywood and Cudahy — where city officials have engaged in their own turf battles in recent years and the politics can be as dangerous as the streets — is the presence and influence of criminal gangs.

South and east about 10 miles from downtown Los Angeles, the scenery along Interstate 710 speaks to the density and roughness of this corner of the nation’s most populous county. Power lines hover above shipping containers destined for the Port of Los Angeles, and beneath the freeway bungalows and mobile home parks are packed into a cluster of what are known as the Hub Cities.

The Hub Cities once thrived as centers of manufacturing jobs, but as the auto industry left Los Angeles County and the immigrant population grew, the demographic shift brought a change in leadership in cities that had been run for decades by white bureaucrats who no longer were representative of the communities.

Now most residents in these cities are working-class immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Many are in the United States illegally. Elected officials are second- or third-generation immigrants, often without much government or political experience.

Local law-enforcement officials say at least four prominent gangs operate out of this area, their members tagging everything from street signs to city property.

“Most of it gets cleaned, except for 18th Street,” one detective wryly noted, referring to the markings of the 18th Street gang, the dominant gang in Cudahy.

The 18th Street gang operates in 27 states and claims more than 30,000 members nationwide, according to the FBI’s 2009 National Gang Threat Assessment. In California, roughly 80 percent of its members are illegal immigrants, the report states. Gang members are known to commit auto theft, drive-by shootings, gun trafficking, extortion and murder-for-hire.

But drug trafficking is the core enterprise that has allowed 18th Street, along with the Mexican Mafia, to establish networks that work closely with Mexican and Colombian drug cartels, the FBI report states.

Police say Cudahy, a 1.2-square-mile area that features deep lots with residences that defy police surveillance, is notorious for its drug-trafficking legacy.

In 1986, a Mexican national from Cudahy was arrested in Dallas with the largest amount of “black tar” heroin ever seized in the U.S., according to news reports. In 1988, two Cudahy homes contained $2.4 million worth of cocaine. A year later, a Cudahy man was arrested with 288 pounds of cocaine in his trunk, and police seized another 400 pounds of the drug from a Cudahy home.

Suspects from Cudahy were arrested in a major drug raid that made a “significant dent” in the cocaine and heroin supply in Utah in the 1990s, and in 2002, one of the biggest cocaine raids in Ohio at the time involved a Cudahy man.

In 2003, a man in Cudahy was abducted in broad daylight and later found dead five miles away in Watts — an incident that news reports at the time compared to a cartel-style attack better suited to a Mexican border town.

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