A notorious Los Angeles street gang has expanded its criminal enterprises into the night life world, authorities said.
The Los Angeles Police Department and federal agents said the 18th Street gang operated underground after-hours bars, using them as bases for various criminal enterprises. Authorities said the locations have been connected to homicides, drug trafficking and gambling.
A series of recent busts at the bars resulted in the arrests of 34 gang members and associates on local and federal charges, authorities said Friday. The arrests are the culmination of an 18-month federal and local probe into so-called casitas concealed in South L.A. homes and closed stores.
"These were bars operating in the wee hours, putting the community at risk," said LAPD Deputy Chief Kirk Albanese. "These locations resulted in homicides, shootings and other violent crime."
At least three homicides in the 77th Street Division area of South L.A. have occurred in or around the casitas. LAPD Cmdr. Andrew Smith cited the case of 35-year-old Rosa Garcia, whose body was found in an alley in the 1500 block of Florence Avenue in January. Smith said investigators believe her death was connected to a nearby casita she frequented.
During raids on five bars since late June, investigators seized $142,000 that would have gone to the gang, authorities say. Albanese said it reflects the importance of these bars as sources for funding gang activity.
"These locations were running seven nights a week," he said.
One illegal after-hours club was just a few blocks from the 77th Street police station, next to a tattoo parlor, authorities say. Patrons entered through an unmarked door and the operator had deliberately spray-painted the wrong address outside, authorities said.
Investigators say taxicab drivers and others in the know would direct patrons or deliver customers to the doors.
Investigators suspect that illegal after-hours bars are popping up all over the L.A. region as gangs look for new ways to make money. Gang members were recently caught running an illegal bar in Salt Lake City.
According to authorities, patrons pay to enter the illegal clubs, where they can buy drugs and alcohol and have access to prostitutes and slot machines.
The clubs are often in neighborhoods where the gang members use intimidation to keep residents from notifying authorities, investigators say.
At a bar raided June 25 near the intersection of 60th Street and Vermont Avenue, Albanese said, "we pulled 50 people out of that location at 3 a.m."
During the investigation known as Operation Treadstone, LAPD and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also seized 15 illegal firearms, 18 slot machines and 200 pounds of illegal fireworks from 19 locations.
Investigators say some of the targets of the arrests are key members of the 18th Street gang, one of the oldest, largest and most heavily entrenched gangs in Southern California.
Last month, a federal grand jury indicted nine alleged members and associates of the 18th Street gang.