Westlake Has Gotten Safer, but the Gang Behind Its Most Terrifying Crime Is Still Active

An alley near MacArthur Park
An alley near MacArthur Park

Two of three suspects charged in a 1993 apartment complex arson that took the lives of 10 people are connected to a gang that's still very much active in the Westlake community, police say. The Columbia Lil Cycos, known by its prolific tagging under the letters CLCS, is a clique of the mighty 18th Street Gang that still haunts the streets surrounding the complex on South Burlington Avenue, according to LAPD Det. F. Flores, with the Rampart Division gang enforcement detail.

Ramiro Valerio, 43, and Joseph Monge, 41, as well as alleged accomplice Johanna Lopez, 51, were charged with multiple counts of capital murder this week. Prosecutors said that, after the case was reopened in 2013, previously reluctant witnesses came forward and helped solidify their case.

Speaking to reporters this week, District Attorney Jackie Lacey called the actions of the suspects in the 1993 fire "mass murder." The trio could face the death penalty.

The trio allegedly started the fire on May 3, 1993, as retaliation after the building's manager tried to halt the clique's drug sales there, prosecutors and police told reporters. Seven women, two of them pregnant, and three children perished in the blaze, officials said.

In those days crime was so bad in the Rampart Division that some called it the Fort Apache of the West Coast. In recent years crime has hit new lows in the area, according to the department.

But the Columbia Lil Cycos, named for nearby Columbia Avenue, still claim as many as 150 members, Det. Flores says. With the transnational gang Mara Salvatrucha (MS) moving into MacArthur Park from the west, and with the Crazy Riders gang dominating streets to the south, CLCS has been defending smaller geographic turf while battling it out in the streets with the Rockwood Street (RWST) gang to the west, he says.

"Unfortunately, they're one of our bigger gangs around," Flores says. "They're very active around the MacArthur Park area."

The park is no longer the open-air drug bazaar it was in the 1990s. And the war that once raged between 18th Street and MS appears to be over. But CLCS still finds ways to commit crime. Its bread and butter is still shaking down street vendors for "taxes," Flores says. "They extort street vendors," he says. "The deal is pay or get beaten or killed."

The results have been tragic. In 2010 two CLCS members were convicted in the fatal shooting of a 23-day-old infant accidentally hit by gunfire intended for an uncooperative street vendor. Federal investigators say an incensed Mexican Mafia ordered the gunman killed, and the unsuccessful caper led to the racketeering conviction of 35-year-old CLCS member Javier Perez.

The Mexican Mafia–connected CLCS has been in the neighborhood since at least the 1960s, and a mural at Sixth and Bonnie Brae streets glorifies some of its original gangsters. The mural gets so much respect — or fear — from the neighborhood that it has been unmolested by taggers, Flores says.


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