- 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.

Retired L.A. Sheriff’s Sgt. Richard Valdemar, a 33-year veteran detective and nationally recognized authority on gangs, said the 18th Street gang’s immigrant roots led to ties with drug-trafficking organizations from the beginning.

“18th Street was able to establish itself in an area already heavily dotted with other drug-dealing gangs,” he said. “Their growth was unbelievable.”

In the early 1990s, he said, the Mexican Mafia brought them under control by edict and forced them to thin their ranks and focus on illicit financial activity.

Establishing relationships in the legitimate business and political community is a significant way for 18th Street to protect its interests, Sgt. Valdemar said.

“They cultivate people, do favors for them, then they leverage those favors by asking for favors of their own,” he said. “They spread money around by buying businesses, cars and real estate in other people’s names and let those people use the property until they are ready to take it for themselves. Or they finance candidates who they think will be loyal to them.

“Once they have gained acceptance, they can seek city officials’ help in obtaining a business permit or liquor license, or police protection for their criminal activities. The money isn’t obvious, but it’s there.”

One notorious 18th Street member in Cudahy, Hector Marroquin, who, according to police reports and law enforcement documents also had ties to the Mexican Mafia, for years operated an unlicensed business, a nightclub called Marrokings, on the city’s main commercial stretch.

Marroquin claimed to have reformed. He started the anti-gang program “No Guns” and, after receiving $1.5 million in gang-intervention funding from the city of Los Angeles, he was sentenced in 2006 to seven years in state prison for selling automatic weapons to undercover agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Police officials said that Cudahy City Manager George Perez once intervened on Marroquin’s behalf when officers visited Marroquin’s nightclub looking for parole violators affiliated with the 18th Street gang. Mr. Perez in a 2007 news story confirmed calling the police chief on Marroquin’s behalf, saying he would be concerned any time a business owner felt harassed. He did not return calls for this report.

Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, a candidate for California attorney general, said last week that an FBI corruption probe is ongoing in Cudahy. Law enforcement officials close to the investigation told The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity that the probe includes suspected gang, Mexican Mafia and drug cartel ties to city officials in Cudahy, but the FBI would not comment.

Mr. Cooley added that “other agencies at other levels of government” continue to probe kickback allegations and other possible criminal charges in Maywood, whose police force until recently had a contract to patrol Cudahy.

Those probes are in addition to an investigation into potential conflict-of-interest charges resulting from the salary scandal in Bell, where the state attorney general’s office is engaged in a “sweeping investigation focused on all possible violations of law by Bell officials,” said a spokesman for Mr. Brown.

Suspected violations of state conflict-of-interest laws also were the subject of a grand jury investigation in Cudahy in 2001, when Mr. Perez as a council member voted for a law change that allowed him to step down and almost immediately be appointed city manager — a move that afforded him a 30 percent salary increase and an appointment to a $600-a-month commissioner’s post on a local water board.

No criminal charges were ever filed.

In 2003, Mr. Perez brought change to Cudahy by canceling the city’s law enforcement contract with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Office, the second-largest police agency in the United States, and bringing in the troubled Maywood police — a force that came under state and federal investigation in 2007 and recently was disbanded when Maywood was dropped by its insurers after receiving numerous claims relating to officer misconduct.

Cudahy Councilman David M. Silva, the city’s longest-serving council member, freely admits he was one of the targets of the 2001 grand jury investigation, and he voted to approve canceling the contract with the sheriff’s department, which had been engaged in proactive anti-gang policing.

Now that the sheriff’s office has resumed policing in both Cudahy and Maywood, Mr. Silva says, he welcomes its return.

“The sheriff can’t be influenced by city officials,” he said.

Mr. Silva sports a tattoo on his forearm that says, “Mi Vida Loca,” which translates to “My Crazy Life,” a favorite slogan among gang members. But he says that’s just a coincidence.

“I’ve never been a gangbanger,” said Mr. Silva, who explained that he got the tattoo along with a group of friends before shipping off for the Vietnam War.

Yet he’s evasive when it comes to talking about the 18th Street gang, acknowledging only that law enforcement officials see Cudahy as a “dumping ground for narcotics.”

Although he denies there is a connection between crime and politics, he said he has been the victim of gangland-type violence that has infected the political process in the past decade.

He said his life was threatened in the 2008 election during a call to his cell phone from an unidentified man.

“People are afraid,” Mr. Silva said, acknowledging a disturbing trend in Cudahy and surrounding cities.

Henry Gonzales, mayor of the neighboring city of South Gate, was shot in the head in 1999 as he returned home from a City Council hearing. At the time, Mr. Gonzalez was known for standing up to the political machine of Treasurer Albert Robles, who went to federal prison in 2005 for bribery and money laundering.

In 2006, the city clerk of Maywood, Hector Duarte, was charged with threatening the lives of two elected officials. He pleaded guilty to one count of making a criminal threat against an official.

That same year, the first municipal election in seven years in Cudahy was marred by telephone death threats against a City Council candidate who later dropped out of the race.

In the 2008 election in Cudahy, one candidate had a Molotov-cocktail explode on a truck parked within feet of his home, a rock thrown through his front window, and a menacing visit from a stranger who was driven to and from the candidate’s house by unidentified men in a sedan. Another candidate had her front window pierced by a shot from a pellet gun.

No arrests have been made.

Last year, a narcotics task force arrested two men for operating a methamphetamine “super lab” out of a rental property owned by the mayor of Bell. The mayor was not implicated in the arrests.

Complicating the investigations and the violent atmosphere, Maywood recently laid off almost its entire city staff and is run by an interim city manager who resigned from her job as assistant city manager in Bell as a result of the salary scandal. The public outcry led to a security presence outside the homes of several Bell officials, and the protests brought out community members from all walks of life.

Linda Guevara, a former City Council member in nearby Huntington Park, said that at one rally she observed three young men in white T-shirts holding a well-made sign saying, “We Support Our City Council.” When she approached and asked the young men to explain their support for the Bell council, she said, one of them replied: “Have you ever heard of 18th Street?”