May 10, 2010

Chaos in the Casitas

Lawless, south of the border-style speakeasies get a grip on L.A.

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.)



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