By Edwin Folven, 3/21/2013
Food trucks were targeted for ‘rent’
Twenty reputed members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) street gang who allegedly charged food truck operators and street vendors “rent” money to conduct business in Hollywood were arraigned Monday on felony extortion charges.
The defendants were arrested on March 14 during a gang sweep at numerous residences in Hollywood after officers and detectives uncovered the extortion plots during a more than yearlong investigation dubbed, “Operation Protecting the Dream”. Police believe the extortion had been occurring since 2007.
“This is very important for Hollywood, and very important for people who live in that neighborhood,” Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck said. “This is the underbelly of street gangs here in Los Angeles. The bread and butter of street gangs, for making money, is extortion. This is all about intimidation. This is all about the perception of ownership of the streets. It’s just a really stellar piece of work.”
Capt. Beatrice Girmala, commanding officer for the LAPD’s Hollywood Division, said the investigation was initiated by two members of the station’s Gang Enforcement Detail — officers Eddie Guerra and Tiffany Eastman. The officers developed a rapport with food truck operators and street vendors over the course of several months, and the victims told them about the extortion. Girmala said the incidents occurred in an area bordered by Santa Monica and Beverly boulevards, and Gower Street and Normandie Avenue. The gang members would allegedly charge monthly “rents” of $10 to $100, depending on the volume of business being conducted. Guerra said flower or fruit vendors would typically be charged around $10 to $30, while the food truck operators were asked to pay $80 to $100. The victims were threatened with violence or death if they didn’t pay. Girmala added that the victims were typically lunch or taco truck operators and vendors serving the Spanish-speaking community, not the operators of designer food trucks that have gained popularity during the past few years.
“In February 2012, the Gang Enforcement Detail began gathering information and on March 14, it culminated in the execution of warrants and arrests,” Girmala said. “This is an area that has been plagued by Mara Salvatrucha for at least three decades. And it was two police officers who took this investigation on at a grass-roots level.”
According to a criminal indictment filed by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, the extortion began around July 2007, when the MS-13 gang members targeted a food truck operator, Danny Lara, who was conducting business near the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Western Avenue. The extortion continued monthly through last December, according to the indictment, and also involved food trucks that operated in other undisclosed locations in Hollywood. The defendants were identified as Marlon Juarez, Jose Parada, David Alfaro, Albert Chojolan, Martha Lara, Christian Serrano, Gerson Perez, Edwin Quintanilla, Andrew Quintanilla, Jaime Moran, Juan Gomez, Angel Navarro, Edin Juarez, Francisco Ruiz, Isamar Marroquin, Kevin Perez, Alex Vasquez, Yesenia Alfaro, Noemi Coronel and Hugo Fernandez. Charges are pending against five additional defendants, who were not identified. They were already in custody on other charges, according to Beck.
Authorities said the case began moving at a swift pace last fall when an alleged MS-13 gang member was arrested on unrelated charges, and began working with police to identify which gang members were involved in the extortions. Police also seized weapons and narcotics during the police raids on March 14, and eight children, ranging in age from infancy to 12 years old, were placed into protective custody with the Department of Children and Family Services.
The defendants pleaded not guilty to multiple counts of extortion on Monday. The arraignment was delayed, however, when a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department jail transport bus mistakenly took the defendants to the Van Nuys Courthouse and then the Inmate Reception Center downtown, instead of the downtown criminals courts building. Sheriff’s department spokesman Steve Whitmore said an investigation is being conducted to determine why the mistake occurred.
“We are looking into what actually happened. We know there was some confusion, but we don’t know why,” Whitmore said. “It resulted in a delay, but nobody was ever in danger of being released.”
The defendants all remain in custody, with bails ranging from $1 million to $3 million. They face lengthy prison sentences if convicted, because each of the counts carries gang enhancements.
“These are the kinds of crimes that will lead to heavy sentences,” Beck said. “There are some folks who will do some serious time for these crimes.”