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Chaos in the Casitas

Lawless, south of the border–style speakeasies get a grip on L.A.
Orly Olivier

Watch the video exclusive surveillance tape of murdered casita victim Rosa Garcia.

All along busy Florence Avenue, between Halldale and South Denker, two blocks from the corner where riots erupted over the Rodney King jury verdict in 1992, the air is pungent with the smell of onions and corn tortillas rising from Vicki’s Tacos, a silver lunch truck. On very late weekend nights, there’s usually a line for her tacos once the nearby clubs, El Tiburon and El Nuevo Reno, close, at 2 a.m.

For eight years, Victoria Cortes has fed the after-hours crowd from the same spot, making hers one of the rare businesses still operating on the 1500 block of Florence — openly operating businesses, that is. The others are a tire shop, and a liquor store whose night employee peers out from behind a bulletproof partition. The rest of the storefronts — a sewing shop, hair salon, church hall and 99-cent store — are shuttered. The gloomy alleyways that parallel Florence Avenue attract “street elk” — horribly mangy dogs forgotten by society, which dash between the buildings like coyotes hunting a meal.

The area is a testament to urban decay, gang domination and municipal neglect. Now, it’s the center of a strange new wave of south of the border–style lawlessness. “Casitas” are the problem, though most L.A. residents have never heard of them.

Literally, the Spanish word translates as “little houses.” In Puerto Rico, casitas are community clubhouses surrounded by gardens, where men and women gather on Friday nights. In Mexico, the word is often used to describe a person’s home: “After a hard day of work I am going to my casita,” says Abelardo De La Pena Jr., acting director of the Mexican Cultural Institute.

But in Los Angeles, casitas are a window into secret speakeasies filled with Mexican and other Central American legal and illegal immigrants. They operate in what appear to be shuttered, recession-emptied storefronts or hollowed-out homes. But inside, after entering through secret backdoors or camouflaged hallways, patrons can get almost anything they want, in a one-stop shop: drugs, gambling, heisted cigarettes, after-hours booze and “B-girls” — slang for “bar” girls, or prostitutes, who charge about $60 for sex.

“You never find good people there,” Cortes says, as she glances from her taco truck across Florence Boulevard toward a vacant, yellow building that, until recently, was a heavily fortified after-hours casita cleverly veiled behind a 99-cent bargain store dubbed Fanny’s — after its chunky, 5-foot-tall operator.

Casitas are “indicative of what goes on down south” of the border, says LAPD Homicide Detective Bill Ritch, a young investigator who, as a U.S. Army reservist, has completed two tours of duty in Iraq. “It’s a derivative” from Central America, and what Ritch calls “a violation of all our laws and our standards.”

Yet some casitas have grown so bold they pass out business cards; one was brazenly operating next to a tattoo parlor within a block of LAPD’s 77th Street Area Community Police Station. Similar clubs thrive in many Mexican, Salvadoran, Honduran and Guatemalan towns and villages, where, Ritch says, there’s often “no vice unit. No [building] code process. They pay off the Federales. Here, it’s the same thing. The draw is the B-girls, alcohol and drugs.”

But in L.A., rather than paying off corrupt cops and building inspectors, casitas operate below City Hall’s radar — and they pay their sizable taxes to somebody other than the government.

In the troubled neighborhoods just 10 miles south of L.A.’s gleaming downtown, even legit businesses are often forced to pay stiff taxes to gangs or other entrenched criminal groups. Because they operate off the books, the casitas are even more vulnerable, paying “taxes” of about $500 to $1,500 per week each to the gangs, which in turn pay a kickback to the Mexican Mafia.

L.A. officials have no idea how fast casitas are spreading in the city’s hundreds of closed storefronts and industrial buildings. It wasn’t until a few years ago, when the violence began, that police realized a new problem was percolating in mostly Latino and black neighborhoods long controlled by the Florencia 13 gang south of the 10 freeway, where unemployment has skyrocketed to 21 percent. Aside from beatings and vandalism, at least six people have been murdered in or around casitas. One man — convicted of murder two months ago — was furious over losing a game of poker at a casita on West Gage Avenue in late 2007. Sandra Ramirez saw the enraged shooter firing randomly inside the tiny, crowded house, as drunken gamblers scrambled over card tables, running for their lives toward a backdoor — the front exit had been illegally bolted shut, a practice common in undeveloped nations.

A witness to another murder refused to testify at a preliminary hearing last year, preferring jail time to publicly stating that, two years ago, he allegedly saw Jose Vital shoot his business partner Ricardo Flores inside their jam-packed casita, which was ensconced in a drab, abandoned warehouse on South Avalon Boulevard. Within a week of the September 2007 shooting, which played out in front of numerous casita guests, Flores’ decomposed body was found in the trunk of his nonpermitted “bandit” taxicab — parked in a police tow yard. (Vital’s trial has not begun.)

 

But it was the January 2008 strangling of Rosa Garcia that revved up the federal and local task force, Operation Treadstone, which had been delving into L.A.’s growing casita phenomenon for only four weeks when she was slain. The pretty, likable young woman with sad eyes had been a familiar face at Vicki’s Tacos, chatting happily as she stood in line. She was found in an alley across the street from the taco truck, two blocks from Florence and Normandie.

Nobody knew Garcia’s full story, but she’d been a B-girl off and on for years, dancing and peddling beers to the men who frequented two casitas — Fanny’s, in the abandoned 99-cent shop, and another one a block away, tucked between the liquor store and a closed hair salon in a cheesy neighborhood mini-mall.

Her murder “kind of haunts us all,” says Sergeant Alma Burke, a no-nonsense cop who supervises the 22-member Operation Treadstone task force. “We really focused more time on [the proliferation of casitas] after her murder.”

LAPD doesn’t pretend to grasp the extent of the casita problem. When the task force began in December 2007, Burke recalls, the police were so perplexed by what they were unearthing in the wasted old houses and barricaded storefronts that, “we thought the B-girls were human-trafficking victims.” Today, the cops know better, as they struggle to understand and stop the latest crime phenomenon in South L.A.

Operation Treadstone was a risky 18-month investigation in which Burke’s 22-person undercover crew of federal ATF agents, vice cops and detectives donned gangwear and grew long hair in order to fit in while haggling with hardcore gang members; the cops bought everything from illegal weapons to meth. Their goal? To catch casita operators and crack down on the legally licensed but shadowy neighborhood bars that help the casitas to thrive by funneling them customers after hours, often in illegal taxis that are part of the underground system.

Vice cops and federal agents quietly launched Operation Treadstone — named after Robert Ludlum’s fictional CIA operation in The Bourne Identity — after a man was shot inside a casita hidden in a dilapidated former mom-and-pop store in a house on Vermont Avenue.

Last June 25, in a sting targeting five casitas, the task force searched 19 homes, apartments and businesses; arrested 27 members and associates of the 18th Street gang; nabbed 15 weapons, more than $42,000 in cash, 18 slot machines, four stolen cars and about 200 pounds of illegal fireworks; and took three endangered children into protective custody.

Undercover agents entered a defunct mom-and-pop store turned casita at 6012 South Vermont Avenue, known as El Guero — “whitey,” after its light-skinned proprietor, Angel Rivera; it appeared abandoned, its windows and doors boarded up. Inside, they found a jammed casita bustling with about 60 men and B-girls, customers supplied by nearby bars such as Chalino’s, according to police. Rivera, a Mexican national and felon with known ties to the 18th Street gang, was raking in illegal cash. In a dungeonlike, windowless hovel in the back, officers found a filthy, blue, foldup mattress — the B-girls’ workspace.

Cops actually remembered Rivera’s loungelike casita from two years earlier, when undercover LAPD officers went inside on another case — and were offered a bucket of six Corona beers for $30, served up, bizarrely, by aging gang members employed as waiters. The cops busted several people that night, but the casita remained open because authorities had their hands full with bigger cases.

LAPD vice officer Melendez (who prefers his first name remain anonymous) explains how the system works: “At the casitas, the doorman will ask the girl if she knows you. She will vouch for me. I make friends with her, so she will back me up. ... They don’t just allow anyone in there. You have to be invited, which is where the legitimate bars come in.”

Explains ATF agent Mike Hoffman, “A lot of time, people are dropped off by bandit taxicabs. The one on Vermont — there were so many people there, and not a lot of cars parked out front. They keep it as low-key as possible. But that is the unique angle in this whole case: These places exist, and they’re a little underworld.”

 

Now Rivera, who ran the casita on Vermont, is charged with felony possession of a firearm, among other crimes. At his private home near South Park a few miles away, detectives found cocaine, guns, ammunition, a cache of cameras, cell phones and iPods — and four slot machines.

Casita operator Fanny Barros, a Guatemalan national and alleged former B-girl, was busted, and cops closed down her 99-cent-store location, charging her with attempting to buy stolen booze and cigarettes from an undercover cop.

One of the biggest coups for cops was the arrests of members of the De Los Angeles family, who, police believe, are high-level 18th Street gang associates. The 18th Street gang has been crossing into Florencia 13 territory with the blessings of the Mexican Mafia to prey on casitas, extorting taxes and installing slot machines, from which they take up to $1,000 a week while forcing the casitas to pay the winning gamblers. The U.S. Attorney is prosecuting drug felon Felipe De Los Angeles, a slippery Mexican national who attorneys say illegally crossed back into California after he was deported in 2004 upon his release from state prison. (De Los Angeles was acquitted of a 1995 murder on Hollywood Boulevard; LAPD detectives still believe he is guilty.) Cops arrested De Los Angeles’ older brother George, who was found with body armor, ammunition and pistols. Another brother, Victor, was also arrested, and a female relative, Guadalupe Calixto, was taken into custody after selling meth to undercover feds.

The boldness of the casita crime wave is sobering for both the cops and the communities in which they operate. One casita, shut down in June, was just a block from the 77th Street police station. There, on South Broadway, proprietor Rigoberto Vasquez had scrawled a fake street address on the front of his building, apparently in a crude effort to confuse the cops.

On nearby Hyde Park Avenue, cops busted a casita tucked inside Palafox’s Iron Works, a ramshackle salvage yard where Calixto, a De Los Angeles family member, was the proprietor. There, police stumbled upon an employee living in a makeshift wooden lean-to, relying on a cook stove — an image straight out of rural East Asia.

The cops tend to catch casita operators for lower-level felonies, like receiving stolen cases of beer or cigarettes, but the criminal activity goes deeper: A month before the June raid, two Mexican men were gunned down as they walked toward the casita at Palafox’s Iron Works. LAPD Homicide Detective Refugio Garza says two Latino friends of the slain men, who, he believes, are eyewitnesses, continue to insist that they saw nothing that night and have refused to cooperate. “A lot of them still think they shouldn’t report a crime because they will be deported,” Garza says with disgust.

Rosa Garcia, 35, was a regular at Florence Avenue’s El Tiburon, a gritty Mexican-style bar with a wooden shark’s head gracing the entrance. Beer is cheap: $3 for a can of Modelo. Patrons listen to ranchero-style music and Latin American pop hits or chat up seductively dressed women who lean near the bar.

These women are B-girls, who dance or keep men company at clubs for cash despite a sign at one bar, El Felix, which reads, in Spanish: “No B-girls!” A beer and the company of a B-girl cost $10, while sex (if engaged in) is $40 to $60. “A guy pays $10 for the beer, five goes to the bar and five goes to the girl,” says LAPD Homicide Detective Tommy Thompson.

“Girls get hooked on meth, hang out at these places and reach bottom, and go back to their families to clean themselves out,” Thompson says. “There is a constant rotation of people.”

Taco truck operator Victoria Cortes met Garcia seven years ago, when the El Tiburon was called Las Hadas, after a famed resort in Mexico. Garcia lived with a roommate on West 120th Street, and her son Steven is believed to be living with a relative in L.A.

Garcia disappeared after the last ownership change, and when she returned she was “skinny,” Cortes recalls. “She didn’t care anymore. She didn’t care about her body. She didn’t care about herself.”

Sgt. Burke says many B-girls turn to prostitution out of desperation, and keep their activities quiet because “in Hispanic culture it is a sin. You are going to hell if you are promiscuous.”

Although Garcia worked as a B-girl, police believe she wasn’t involved in prostitution at the time of her death. One of her frequent haunts was Fanny’s, a claustrophobically small speakeasy with slot machines and a jukebox.

“After El Nuevo Reno closed [at 2 a.m.], many people would go inside” the casita, says Ted Park, an amiable man who runs Fast Tire on Florence Avenue next to Fanny’s. “I open my shop at 8 a.m., and I would see many people walking around dazed and hung-over.”

 

Sitting on a chair pulled into the middle of the parking lot, a middle-aged Latino adds, “I heard the females [at Fanny’s] were beautiful. Top dollar.” He didn’t frequent it, he says, because it was too expensive, yet he knew “they sold beer for $2.”

It must have been profitable, because Fanny Barros was paying about $500 in “taxes” weekly to the 18th Street gang. Not long ago, the gang that had been shaking her down stole the illegal slot machines at Fanny’s, commandeering them from their real owners, an elusive group of Armenian gangsters who had been providing Fanny 20 percent of the slot-machine take. Later, the 18th Street gang reinstalled the slot machines at Fanny’s but cut her out of their profits even as they forced her to pay any winning gamblers.

For all the underground riches that flow through these casitas, they don’t look like much. One urban tableau recalls the slums of Rio: In the alleyway near the back entrance of Fanny’s, a soiled mattress serves as a makeshift boudoir for B-girls and their customers, used condoms and condom wrappers strewn around.

A disgusted neighbor, whose property line shared the alley with Fanny’s, has added 3 feet of new fence height and topped it with a nasty roll of barbed wire. He had no choice: People were continually jumping over his fence — to have sex in his backyard.

It was a typical, fed-up citizen who found Rosa Garcia. Not far down the street from the filthy mattress that served as a quickie mart for sex, a man sweeping outside his home found her seminude and barefoot body near some trash. Her small, black-leather purse was still wrapped over her right shoulder and tucked by her side. She had no driver’s license or California identification except for a Golden State Advantage EBT card bearing her name. Oddly, a tape measure was found near her body.

Police say Garcia was already dead when she was dragged several feet. Her black, high-heeled wedge sandals were found where the drag marks began.

LAFD paramedics who arrived at the grisly scene placed her blue jeans over her nude lower body out of respect. LAPD’s Grim Sleeper Task Force was called to determine if she might be a victim of the serial killer, who has been killing mostly women and dumping their bodies in South Los Angeles alleyways since 1985.

“She was in an alley at Florence and Halldale, which is only a block from where [Grim Sleeper victim] Thomas Steele was found,” says Detective Cliff Shepard, but police say the Grim Sleeper was not involved this time.

Victoria Cortes recalls that Rosa Garcia walked past her taco stand at around 10 p.m. the night she died, on her way to hang out at El Tiburon. Then at 2 a.m., Garcia visited the taco stand with her roommate and two Latino strangers. Cortes remembered one of the men from earlier. She had served him tacos, and he’d borrowed a lighter. She described him as a construction worker or painter. He was wearing workman’s boots — and had a measuring tape clipped to his jeans.

“They were joking, and she was pretending she was strangling him,” Cortes recalls.

Cortes never saw Garcia again. “When we were working here, they were killing her,” Cortes says. “I got goose bumps. I thought they maybe tried to rob her. I got afraid. ... Maybe she didn’t want to go to bed with this guy [or] maybe she took his money.”

It’s just after 10:30 p.m. on July 22, and a special roll call is under way in the basement squad room of LAPD’s 77th Street station, where the Operation Treadstone task force and cops from several cooperating LAPD stations have gathered.

It’s one month after the task force’s June raid that closed five casitas, and now the room is filled with burly uniformed officers and muscular undercover cops in jeans and rock T-shirts. They ooze testosterone, and the place has the feel of an audition room for the World Wrestling Federation. Some chat amiably, while others lean against the walls with their arms crossed, their guns resting in their holsters. There’s mild tension in the air. Or maybe that’s just how a visitor sees it.

Things get very quiet when a group of LAPD brass walks in to explain tonight’s raid on five bars in South L.A. The commander, using PowerPoint, describes the licensed bars they plan to crack down on, and the 12 men and women named in felony warrants.

One key aim of the evening is to hobble the legal bars that feed into the casita network. The cops are slightly on edge. A previous raid ended before it got started, when City Attorney Carmen Trutanich shut down the operation, arguing that the cops lacked search warrants to enter the clubs. Police were finally going out without search warrants, which, they maintain, are not needed.

 

This night’s targets are well-documented nuisance bars that perpetually violate city codes and, police say, regularly sell drugs and weapons. Last year, for example, undercover ATF agents purchased drugs and six guns inside Chalino’s, and an El Felix Bar security guard sold undercover agents cocaine and meth, bought cases of beer from them and paid with drugs, and brokered a deal to let the undercover agents purchase a Glock .40 caliber handgun for $600.

More than 100 cops are soon swarming South L.A. on this warm July night, raiding such bars as El Tiburon, Chalino’s and El Nuevo Reno. (L.A. Weekly was allowed to accompany the officers.)

At Chalino’s, on South Broadway, a heavyset B-girl sits at the bar, her jet-black hair arranged in a ponytail up-do that cascades from the crown of her head to below her hips, her breasts nearly escaping her short, red-satin dress’s “sweetheart” bodice. She is all of a piece, her look completed by a pair of outlandish, red, high-heeled Grecian sandals whose red-satin laces crisscross her legs to just below her knees. Her area of interest this night is an older Latino nursing a beer. She’s almost certainly earning $5 to sit with him for about 15 minutes.

When L.A. Weekly asks two B-girls nearby a few questions, they look away, glare at the police and speak Spanish among themselves. Nobody runs. Safe in this legal bar, they know the police will only haul away wanted gang members and felons, or cite a bar owner if he or she is breaking liquor-license laws by serving minors or selling drinks after hours.

Certain L.A. residents might get an uneasy feeling from Chalino’s, even though it is near the 77th Street police station and is licensed by the state Department of Alcohol Beverage Control. Displayed proudly on a shelf next to Jesus candles, rosary beads and a poster of a big-breasted Budweiser girl is a bust of Jesus Malverde, the Mexican “patron saint” of narcotics traffickers. Remarks one undercover federal agent who spots it, “It’s amazing that it’s so brazenly sitting at the front of the bar.”

By evening’s end, police have visited several legitimate bars and snared bar crawlers, including a wanted burglary suspect, and even a bar employee posing as a security guard.

Although the City Attorney’s Office has tried to stop these rough licensed bars from acting as feeders for illegal speakeasies — the city recently filed two abatement procedures against El Tiburon and El Felix Bar — casitas pop up like pimples on a teenager. Since the big June raid, Burke believes that Mexican and Guatemalan nationals, as well as the 18th Street and Florencia 13 gangs, run by the Mexican Mafia, have opened at least eight more casitas.

Jose lives with his young family on the trashed-and-neglected Hoover Street, not far from a casita that moved there from Vermont Avenue. The casita was shut down on June 25, but its owners simply reopened another one, next to a Hoover Street alternator shop. Jose says, “I never complained, because I know how [casita owners] would react.” But, “Every weekend, we would see something happening.”

So, taking an action police say is far too rare, Jose’s neighbor finally complained to LAPD.

“My friend has a van,” he explains. “It got damaged on the side. I know how they work. The bars close at 2, then they open the casitas. They would pass by my house, drunk, talking loudly, smoking and drinking around the corner. Someone started a fire in a trash can. They gave everybody a hard time for two or three months. We reported it to the police.”

Authorities responded by ordering the owner to close the new Hoover Street casita, but it will most likely reappear somewhere else, supplied with new customers by the gritty licensed bars that work in symbiosis with them. On September 11, the day after the L.A. city attorney filed nuisance-abatement procedures against the El Tiburon and El Felix bars, Sgt. Burke was parked outside El Felix with undercover officers who’d gotten a tip that nonpermitted strippers were already back, performing illegal table dances for customers for $1 a song.

In a city as big and troubled as L.A., the police and politicians are largely reliant on residents themselves to stand up and refuse to accept what is unfolding around them. In the lobby of the 77th Street police station is a poster offering a $50,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of the person who killed Rosa Garcia. In the poster, Garcia’s sunken eyes contrast starkly with her lovely face.

 

Leads on that case have all but dried up, except for a surveillance tape made the night she died, retrieved by police from a security camera installed years ago by Vicki’s Tacos. The video shows a nameless Latino with a measuring tape, flirting with Rosa Garcia.

Reach the writer at cpelisek@laweekly.com.


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