By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Since his revolving-door ascent from the council to city manager in 2000, Perez’s salary has risen by $30,000 — more than most residents make in a year — to $120,000. Meanwhile, the city’s problems remain dire: poverty, density, gangs and drugs. One-third of residents are under 14 — a vulnerable population. Out in front of Cudahy City Hall one November day, 16-year-old Erica summed up Cudahy this way: “It’s small, so everything is close by. But it’s ugly, and there are shootings.”
Victor, a 16-year-old honor student who plays varsity football, runs track and holds down a part-time job, says, “Some streets are too ghetto. There’s lots of violence. My mother has been going to community meetings to ask about this, but it always seems to stay the same.” Victor liked it better where his family used to live: Compton, one of L.A.’s notorious trouble spots. “There should be more police here in Cudahy. Kids don’t play outside. People don’t feel safe.”
With its narrow, deep lots — the result of an agricultural past that is long gone — its glut of rundown apartment buildings and its lack of economic growth, Cudahy offers a good example of how Mexican drug cartels, the prison-based Mexican mafia and gangs like 18th Street are attracted to the Los Angeles–adjacent industrial sprawl populated by poor immigrants.
Do these criminal elements influence Cudahy’s leaders, with city officials answering to someone other than the public or the rule of law, in a town policed by another town’s troubled police force? The answer is unknown.
Neither the DEA nor the FBI has ever established a connection between city officials and business fronts in the United States’ $65 billion illegal-drug market. Beyond the street crime, behind the scenes, groups finance border tunnels and run other drug-trafficking gateways that have helped make Southern California the highest-intensity drug-distribution center in the United States.
Who is actually responding to that? Local cities’ law enforcers have their hands full with violent street crime. Local gang- and drug-task-force police officers who talked to the Weekly on condition of anonymity say they are busy with three criminal groups: traffickers, who are not always involved in gangs; the Mexican mafia, which can be involved in either gangs or drug cartels; and gangs such as 18th Street, which specialize in drug transportation, distribution, money laundering and muscle.
Some cops say they lack confidence in the feds to clean house at the civic level, where drug traffickers rely on distribution fronts, money-laundering businesses and tainted law enforcement. “You hear about all kinds of scandalous shit,” says a local veteran detective. “But federal agents don’t have the street knowledge to figure out what’s going on. They rely on us.”
DEA agent Sarah Pullen says drug trafficking “has crept into society” via cash businesses, real estate deals and otherwise legitimate civic leaders with interests in both. “Southeast L.A. County has always been heavily involved in all levels of drug trafficking,” says Pullen, who pursued Cudahy-based targets in six of 12 cases in the past few years.
When asked by the L.A. Weekly why Cudahy has shown up so frequently in eye-popping drug busts from the 1980s to the present — sometimes with as much as 500 pounds of cocaine seized at a time — Pullen says her agency doesn’t track drug seizures by city. It tracks drug organizations, which aren’t confined by borders.
But after doing some research, Pullen was able to determine that from 2002 to 2007, the DEA seized 27.5 pounds of cocaine from the city of Bell, Cudahy’s neighbor directly to the north. In comparison, during that same time period, the agency seized 486 pounds of cocaine in Cudahy — more than 17 times the amount seized in Bell.
Mostly, Pullen says, gangs and traffickers go where they feel most comfortable. She cautions, “Once it gets past drugs and money, we turn it over to the FBI. We don’t have the tools to connect all the dots.” For its part, the FBI will not confirm public-corruption probes, much less whether any such probes involve drug trafficking or money laundering. When asked, FBI agent Laura Eimiller snaps, “I can’t talk about that. It could compromise ongoing investigations.”
A rough-and-tumble world of small-city politics has come to define the drug- and gang-infested cities clustered around the 710 freeway: Bell Gardens, Cudahy, Huntington Park, Lynwood, Maywood and South Gate, among others.
In recent decades, the demographic shift from white working class to Mexicans and Central Americans resulted in immigrants and their sons and daughters gaining political power. Now, most elected officials reflect the majority Latino population. But high unemployment, illegal immigration and a maze of freeways, truck stops and industrial areas — just a half-day’s drive from Mexico — have contributed to the busy drug-trafficking zones, blight and violence.
Residents, many of them illegal or too young to vote, have it rough. After complaining to authorities or taking too much notice of suspicious activity on their block, some low-income residents have been repaid with retaliation or violent threats. In Cudahy, one persistent complainer got a door-knock from the police — a public no-no that alerts drug dealers to the complainer’s identity and can result in that person’s property being vandalized.
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