The first sign of trouble for Cudahy City Council candidate Tony Mendoza was a pair of thong panties mailed to his wife, with a note telling her to watch her husband’s back. Then came the phone calls — and the death threats.
A political novice in a tiny city of Mexican immigrants that hasn’t had an election since 1999, Mendoza had expected dirty tricks. But to his dismay, the caller, who spoke poor English and called every day for three days, said Mendoza would be killed if he did not leave Cudahy, a 1.2-square-mile city 10 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. After the third call, Mendoza pulled out of the March 6 race. “I have my family to think about,” he said.
Running for council seats against a slate of incumbents in a city infested with gangs and drugs, Danny Cota and Luis Garcia faced similar tactics. A truck owned by Garcia, a former city employee, was painted with graffiti, and ex-felon and Cudahy city employee Gerardo Vallejo sought a restraining order against Garcia for criminal threats. A judge tossed the complaint, but Garcia’s campaign was rattled.
In late December, at a holiday gathering at the City Club in downtown Los Angeles hosted by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Cota ran into Bell Gardens City Councilman Mario Beltran, who was perplexed to see Cota, a 29-year-old teacher, hobnobbing and being photographed with Villaraigosa and others.
“Who brought him here?” Councilman Beltran asked onlookers, some of whom are friends of Cudahy’s Vice Mayor, Osvaldo Conde, who is running for re-election. “You better watch out,” Beltran warned Cota, the bright-eyed challenger. “Conde will take care of you with his cuerno de chivo.”
Though Beltran was smiling as he tossed off some Mexican slang for an AK-47, Cota says he did not appreciate such talk. A witness, Maywood Mayor Sergio Calderon, a friend of Cota’s, says, “It was a joke, a tasteless joke.”
Cudahy is a strange little city; some say a scary one. In 2003, city leaders fired the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department — which had policed Cudahy for 14 years, focusing on gang and drug crime — in favor of a nearby municipal police force that recently erupted over public allegations of police brutality and kickbacks to police and city officials from a towing company.
In Cudahy, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has seized almost 20 times more cocaine over the past five years than in Bell, a bordering city of similar size, and the city suffers more crime per capita than small towns nearby. It’s a city with 200 active gang members, where shootings are common though homicide rare — that is, until 11 killings occurred in the wake of the sheriff’s departure in 2003.
Cudahy leaders seem satisfied. Consider the tone-deaf reaction of Cudahy City Manager George Perez in early February, after the news broke on KNBC Channel 4 and in La Opinión, a Spanish-language daily, that the city of Maywood, currently under a $2-million-a-year contract to police Cudahy, was facing a state takeover because the police department — the Maywood-Cudahy Police Department — is so out of control.
“Police problems in Maywood have nothing to do with us,” said Perez. “Our city council is happy, and our citizens are too.”
Cudahy resembles a Mexican border town more than it does a Los Angeles suburb. Entrenched gangs and Mexican drug trafficking have trapped working-class legal and illegal immigrants in a cycle of violence and fear, in a city where less than a quarter of the 28,000 residents are eligible to vote. An uneducated city council, a deeply troubled police force imported from Maywood two towns over, and the raw power of the 18th Street Gang — a complex criminal organization with a knack for setting up business fronts and obscuring underground drug activity — make Cudahy residents seem like hostages in their own city.
By most accounts, Cudahy City Council members — two retired union managers, an insurance salesman, a waitress and a grocer — do not run the city as they were elected to do. Rather, they defer to City Manager Perez, a former janitor who is known to favor revenue traps such as DUI and driver’s license checkpoints over aggressive tactics that make gangs and drug dealers less comfortable.
In 2001, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office convened a grand jury to investigate whether Perez violated criminal conflict-of-interest laws. The probe stemmed from his actions as a city councilman, when, after voting for an ordinance that lifted a one-year waiting period between holding political office and appointed office, Perez stepped down from the council and was promptly appointed city manager, the city’s highest-paying job. According to prosecutors’ memos and letters obtained by the L.A. Weekly, the D.A.’s office was forced to drop the investigation after concluding that it “could not prove a criminal violation” of state laws “beyond a reasonable doubt.”