The Town the Law Forgot
An L.A. 'burb is mired in gangs, cartels and south-of-the-border-style politics
LA Weekly | March 1, 2007
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.”
Known as a ruthless political boss, Perez is not running for city council in the upcoming March 6 election, but he is deserving of scrutiny. After all, he calls the shots in Cudahy.
Perez shrugs at allegations of foul play on the campaign trail, or any possibility that his minions could be involved. “I've talked with Mendoza,” he says of death threats that knocked the would-be candidate out of the running. “He apologized for talking bad about me.”
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.
“It gets a lot worse than that,” says a local cop, acknowledging that criminal threats are so common that police are hard-pressed to investigate them.
In contrast to the vulnerability of the average Cudahy resident, business owners who operate questionable businesses get velvet-glove treatment from politicians that would be considered scandalous in the city of Los Angeles. In Cudahy, the Potrero Club is one of several magnets for crime and is frequented by gangsters, but it is nevertheless embraced by Cudahy authorities. A notorious nightspot that parents warn their children to stay away from, the Potrero Club has a long record of being the scene of thefts, assaults and drug activity.
Officials in Cudahy openly promote this crime magnet, however, holding fund-raisers for the Cudahy Youth Foundation there and even using it as an annual gathering spot for a children's Christmas pageant. Cudahy has sunk so low that each year at Christmastime, Perez and the city council parade around town on the back of a tow truck and toss candy to the children, with the procession ending in a toy giveaway at the Potrero Club, whose owners in the past have displayed photos not of Hollywood movie stars but of famous Mexican drug traffickers.
Crime statistics for the Potrero Club show 700 calls for police assistance there since September 2003, in response to reports of shootings, assaults, stabbings, beatings by security guards, drug use — even rape.
City leaders don't find it strange that a dangerous nightclub passes for a civic pillar in Cudahy. Cars disappear from the Potrero at an alarming rate, according to police reports obtained by the Weekly. When asked about Cudahy's use of the Potrero for official events, Perez says, “It's not my favorite place, but we'll continue to use it.”
Even before recent threats against the upstart Cudahy City Council candidates, politics and violence bled together in the surrounding and equally troubled immigrant suburbs.
The widely publicized nonfatal shooting of a councilman in South Gate by an unknown assailant in 1999 ushered in a brutal era. Soon afterward, police investigated the mayor of neighboring Bell Gardens for allegedly trying to run over a former city councilman. Former South Gate Treasurer Albert Robles allegedly threatened to rape and murder his political opponents. No charges resulted from the alleged threats, but Robles was convicted of bribery and sent to prison. In January of this year, a city council candidate in Huntington Park reported to police that he received “terrorist threats” on the street from three men in dark suits who sped off in a luxury car.
Some Mexican-American politicians are apologists for the dark side in these troubled little cities, chalking up the chaos to lack of experience on the part of the Latino officials who took power as the demographics changed.
“Just like a mother never gives birth to a criminal, no politician ever gets elected with criminal intent,” says Rosario Marin, former U.S treasurer and former Huntington Park mayor, who was followed in her car and terrorized by unknown assailants as her city struggled with gang violence, drug trafficking and federal investigations.
“I have to believe that,” adds Marin, a prominent California Republican with close ties to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who appointed her as secretary of the State and Consumer Services Agency. “Yet it hurts me to see how people get corrupted.”
Confronted with an alarming pattern, District Attorney Steve Cooley distinguished himself from his predecessors by going after public corruption in L.A. County — with mixed results. Some say his convictions of officials in Compton and South Gate were low-lying fruit, and that Cudahy got away from him.
Ever-present in Cudahy and its neighboring cities are three attorneys who have, over the years, blended municipal law and lobbying to great effect. Arnoldo Beltran, Francisco Leal and David Olivas have made a small fortune representing scandal-plagued cities. Today, Olivas represents Cudahy and Leal represents Maywood, with the two cities sharing a police force that is in disarray.
Perhaps foremost among the many controversies in which these lawyers have been embroiled are allegations explored in a 1999 L.A. Times story that Beltran, a Stanford-educated lawyer, and Leal, a Harvard Law School graduate raised by immigrants in El Paso, were threatening to launch recall campaigns against elected officials in Lynwood, Commerce and Bell Gardens if they did not vote to retain the two men's legal services.
Beltran and Leal, former partners in a now-defunct law firm that also included Olivas as an associate, at the time denied the allegations. Beltran would not comment for this article. Leal did not return several calls for comment. But they would be hard-pressed to deny that their political savvy has earned them a reputation for being influential advisers to many small cities.
In 1999, the firm split, with Leal and Olivas going off to form Leal, Olivas & Jauregui, which represented the city of Cudahy in 2000 when Perez made the revolving-door move, through a series of ordinances drafted by David Olivas, from city councilman to city manager. The resulting grand-jury investigation did not lead to criminal charges but left a lasting mark on the city.
Less than a year later, in Bell Gardens, Beltran drafted a slightly different ordinance with the exact same effect: to upgrade a city councilwoman, Maria Chacon, to city manager. The move had serious consequences. Investigators from the D.A.'s office searched Beltran's offices in 2001 in connection with an investigation of Chacon, whom they later charged with criminal conflict of interest. Beltran hired celebrity defense lawyer Mark Geragos, though Beltran was not named as a target of the investigation, nor was he charged with a crime.
Chacon spent the next several years defending the charges on grounds that Beltran advised her it was okay to vote on the ordinance that allowed her to switch roles from council member to city manager. The state Supreme Court rejected that defense recently, clearing the way for Cooley's office to take her to trial.
The methods of Beltran, Leal and Olivas left a mark on their former law partner Jesse Jauregui, who broke all ties with the group in 2001. Jauregui has this — and only this — to say about his old colleagues: “I'm glad to no longer be a part of Tammany Hall–style politics. How far it goes, I do not know. It became a seamy situation.”
The legal maneuvering that led to new leadership in Cudahy was part of a larger strategy, says former Cudahy councilwoman Araceli Gonzalez, a child of Mexican immigrants. “They were very outspoken,” says Gonzalez of the lawyers who advised Cudahy and Bell Gardens. “They were telling people they were going to take over these cities and put Latinos in power.”
Olivas, now in his own law practice while wearing two hats — as Cudahy city attorney and councilman in Baldwin Park — argues that the move to anoint Perez as Cudahy city manager was about Latino self-determination, and that change in leadership in small southeast L.A. County cities was for the better.
“People were tired of being governed by outsiders,” Olivas says. “This was people from Cudahy, of Cudahy and for Cudahy.”
But since that time of upheaval, certain actions by Cudahy officials have raised questions about whether they are acting in the public's best interest as Maywood struggles to get the two cities' shared police force under control.
Near downtown Cudahy, a thick haze hovers over the 710 freeway, with the Los Angeles skyline barely visible beyond an expanse of rail yards, storage containers, terminals and freight cars. Billboards for casinos and strip clubs and a tangle of power lines clutter the skies surrounding this bleak stretch of highway.
The cities around the 710 freeway — a gateway from the Port of Long Beach to the rest of the nation — are so small they share freeway exits. Graffiti is scrawled on overpasses, exit signs and the concrete banks of the L.A. River, informing visitors that they are about to enter gangland. The grimy strip malls, auto-body shops and fast-food joints further speak to a loss of prosperity.
Cudahy, the smallest, poorest and most violent of these cities, feels like a place the law has forgotten, a feeling that intensifies along Santa Ana Street, where a large “18” is spray-painted on a telephone-utility box at one end of the block, and another large “18” is tagged at the other end — on a government dumpster, no less, at Cudahy City Hall.
City Hall is a squat brick structure in a remote corner of the city bordered by the L.A. River and next to an often-empty park, a school and a weed-filled would-be basketball court with a sign that reads “Opening Fall 2006.”
Inside, City Manager George Perez sits behind his desk listening to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons on his iPod. His walls are adorned with photos of him and his '64 Chevy Impala, with a license plate that reads, “2 Cudahy.” Perez, stocky with helmetlike black hair, is equally feared and loved in Cudahy.
He likes to tell people he has the city “locked down.” In his mid-40s, he's the consummate Mexican-American political boss — just don't tell him that. Perez, a man who sports a T-shaped tattoo between his thumb and forefinger, argues: “This is so different from Mexican politics.” Perez refuses to discuss the tattoo, or say much about the other one, on his leg — of Cudahy's official city seal. “I'm not from Mexico; I'm from here.”
Perez is bracing for the March election, although he is not a candidate. He knows that two novice candidates are out there, hearing from poor immigrants, renters and property owners about how they are afraid to walk the streets at night, how there is nowhere decent to shop, and how other cities mock Cudahy, calling it “Crudahy.”
“We've never had greater public service in this community,” Perez insists. “We've broken down barriers by hiring more bilingual staff. I have an open-door policy. My wife and I grew up here and understand the underprivileged families.”
Thirty years ago, Perez started as a janitor, “fishing turds out of the toilets,” he says with bitter pride. Perez now owns four parcels in Cudahy and recently purchased a $700,000 house in Hacienda Heights, in the San Gabriel Valley, where he lives part-time. In addition to his Impala, in mint condition, he tools around in a convertible BMW, a luxury made possible by his $120,000-a-year salary plus a $600-per-month stipend — an unusually large fee to act as a commissioner on the board of one of three water companies serving Cudahy.
How Perez got to where he is today is a controversial subject in Cudahy.
As they did in Bell Gardens, investigators swept down on Cudahy City Hall and Perez's house in 2001, looking for evidence that he violated criminal conflict-of-interest laws when he backed the maneuvering that led to his switch from councilman to city manager on the same day.
According to sworn statements and memos from District Attorney Steve Cooley's office obtained by the Weekly, Cudahy employees were pressured to use the same law firm that represented Perez in the investigation. (That firm, astonishingly, was headed by Cooley's best friend, former District Attorney Robert Philibosian. See “The Steve and Bob Show,” L.A. Weekly, August 16, 2006) A clause in the document that city employees were pressured to sign stated in part: “An advantage of using a single law firm in a criminal matter may be to help assure a common position and increase the likelihood that none of the clients will cooperate with the prosecution.” Other city officials, later named as targets, also retained top-shelf attorneys on the city's dime. The result was a stonewall defense that cost Cudahy taxpayers $1 million in legal fees.
The aftermath has not been as promised by the upbeat Perez. Some of his harshest critics — L.A. Sheriff's deputies who worked in Cudahy — accuse him of seeking out a predatory tow-truck company to tow cars for minor violations and thus boost city coffers. Property owners accuse him of being quick to aggressively ticket them for small building violations, even as the city's main commercial corridor wallows in blight.
L.A. Sheriff's Detective Raul Gama patrolled Cudahy in the mid-1990s, trying to eradicate gangs. He claims that Sheriff's Department raids and sweeps, aimed at catching gang members with probation and parole violations and putting them back behind bars, were reducing gang-related crime by 35 percent.
Gama describes his interactions with then-councilman Perez as “a game of cat and mouse.” He says Perez preferred him to focus on vehicle checkpoints, which allowed the city to tow cars and charge impound fees when the city nabbed mostly illegal immigrants for not having driver's licenses.
“I had a problem with preying on people,” Gama says. “It wasn't the best use of our resources.”
Later, as city manager, Perez eliminated jobs, concentrating power in his office, according to internal city memos obtained by the Weekly. After disagreeing with a member of the Chamber of Commerce, he stopped the city's longtime contributions to the chamber, causing the chamber to leave Cudahy, which contributed to disarray in the city's business community.
L.A. County Deputy Sheriff Miguel Mejia, who served for several years in Cudahy, says he always was baffled by Perez's obsession with wielding power while law enforcers were fighting an uphill battle against gangs and drug dealers, who, he alleges, seemed to have an inside line into Cudahy City Hall.
Says Mejia, “We brought in helicopters, a special gang-enforcement unit. I seriously believe gangs felt our presence.” But, he says, “If we suspected someone of committing a crime, we'd have to keep it from the city.” Interviews with two former Cudahy municipal officers, who asked to remain anonymous, confirm that part of their job was to report to City Hall about what the police were doing, and who they were talking to.
Perez's revenue-generating activities paid off — sort of. The city reserve climbed to $3.8 million in 2006 — an unusually high reserve for any California city with an $8 million annual budget.
Yet unpaid bills mounted. The Weekly has reviewed internal e-mails from city employees warning that road-repair companies were threatening to send the city to collections and reminding Perez that payroll expenses were reported for employees no longer with the city. Despite the huge city reserve, payment on the police contract fell behind last year by $245,000, according to a June 20, 2006, letter to Perez from former Maywood City Attorney Cary Reisman.
A 2003 decision shows where the city's priorities are — and may begin to explain why Maywood's current police troubles are not easily separable from Cudahy.
Perez and the sheriff had already been at cross-purposes for years when, three years ago, Perez moved to oust two local tow-truck companies the Sheriff's Department had long worked with. Perez wanted to bring in Maywood Club Towing, giving it access to sensitive law-enforcement data, according to Sergeant Ruben Martinez of the L.A. Sheriff's Department.
“You've dealt with two companies for years that are located right in your city, and all of sudden you go outside with a company you've never worked with before?” asks Martinez. “We weren't comfortable with that.”
Not to be thwarted by the Sheriff's Department, Perez shopped for another agency to police Cudahy — and Maywood, despite sharing no boundaries with Cudahy, liked the idea of earning $2 million a year, which allowed Maywood to double the size of its small force. Perez says the move had nothing to do with a towing dispute.
Dumping the sheriff's contract was bizarre. Interviews with local drug police and a review of search-warrant records from 2006 confirm that Cudahy — all 1.2 square miles of it — is a crime hotbed, even as Maywood police work overtime on traffic patrol. In April, federal agents seized automatic weapons and 270 pounds of marijuana and caught Cudahy-based suspects on a wiretap discussing plans to buy and sell “20 to 30 pounds” of methamphetamine and large amounts of cocaine.
“The Sheriff's Department is a large, professional organization,” says former Cudahy City Attorney Michael Colantuono, who was fired by Perez. “But the city manager does not have as much control over the Sheriff's Department... the sheriff won't protect your friends or punish your enemies.”
Along with the Maywood Police Department came Maywood Club Towing. A mess ensued — at least in Maywood, which last week imploded in scandal. On February 13, under intense community pressure, the Maywood City Council unanimously voted to ask California Attorney General Jerry Brown to probe allegations of kickbacks to cops and city officials by Maywood Club Towing, as well as claims of police sexual and racial abuse. Among the accusations is that Maywood police flew to Las Vegas, courtesy of the towing company, getting free rooms and the services of prostitutes.
A spokesman for Brown said on Tuesday that the attorney general will defer to District Attorney Cooley, who announced last Friday that he has launched a criminal investigation of Maywood officials and police.
Last August, Maywood police officer Alfred Hutchings received anonymous letters at his office at Chapman University, where he works part-time as an ethics professor. The letters, copies of which were obtained by the Weekly, apparently were written by a Maywood Police Department whistleblower and contain graphic descriptions of racially and sexually abusive cops who were protected if they met quotas for impounding vehicles. The letters also accused two City Council members of taking kickbacks from Maywood Club Towing.
Hutchings turned the letters over to Maywood Police Chief Bruce Leflar, who in November named Hutchings to head the department's professional-standards unit. But within a week, Leflar went on medical leave, according to an internal e-mail from Lieutenant Paul Pine, who, as the new ranking cop, promptly dismissed Hutchings.
The letters claim that Pine lived rent-free in an apartment in Maywood owned by the owners of Maywood Club Towing, and that many Maywood officers, including Pine, left previous jobs under pressure from superiors. According to civil rights lawyer Tom Barham, the new acting police chief, Richard Lyons, was promoted from patrol sergeant with no command experience or training, after leaving jobs with Santa Ana Park Police and the city of El Monte. “He's no Audie Murphy,” Barham told a packed Maywood City Council hearing last Tuesday.
Sergeant Enrique Gonzalez, the Maywood Police Department's official liaison to Cudahy, insisted to the Weekly recently that the allegations “are isolated to Maywood. In Cudahy the citizens want us there. They cooperate with us.”
In recent months the Weekly paid numerous visits to the Maywood Police Department to gather Cudahy crime statistics and ask about public safety. During one of our visits, in January, acting Maywood chief Lyons refused to discuss the Cudahy police contract or anything related to policing or public safety, referring all questions to the new Maywood city attorney, Francisco Leal, formerly of Leal & Olivas. (Leal's former partner, David Olivas, served as Maywood city attorney until 2004.) The Weekly has called Leal for comment several times, but he has not responded.
Why did Cudahy want Maywood police and Maywood Club Towing in the first place, and why is Cudahy City Manager George Perez satisfied with them amid all the problems?
The Weekly confirmed with Perez that several of the officers named in the anonymous letters to Hutchings have policed the streets of Cudahy, including a current motorcycle officer named Florencio Mesa. Mesa stands publicly accused of sexual misconduct, and also is known as a prolific ticket writer, racking up some 100 impounds a month, which brings in $100,000 in revenue, according to the letters. Perez acknowledges Mesa's ticket-writing prowess but says the allegations against Mesa are “out of character.”
Perez says that in Cudahy, people don't tolerate bad police behavior. But some residents are extremely unhappy with the job Maywood police are doing in Cudahy.
Three months ago, 15-year-old Joseph Garcia was shot and killed on Santa Ana Street, less than 100 yards from Cudahy City Hall. Perez was at the scene when police arrived, and he received an earful from Garcia's father, according to police sources, who say Garcia's father was blaming Perez for his son's death — not enough Maywood police patrolling the streets. Perez, when asked by the Weekly about the father's anger, replies dismissively, “People are always looking for someone to blame.”
Two weeks later, with residents still shocked by the City Hall–adjacent killing, a Neighborhood Watch meeting attracted 200 people — but crime was never discussed. Instead, Perez presided over a surreal pep rally featuring “happy birthday” sing-alongs, rounds of applause for new parents, sales pitches from Herbalife and New York Life, and a gift raffle.
For two hours, nobody mentioned murdered teenager Joseph Garcia, or street violence. The most pressing matter raised was speed bumps. “That's how George plays it,” Sheriff's Sergeant Martinez says. “He's into petting puppies and kissing babies.”
Perez urges folks to call him with problems, but one woman went too far and ended up with an unwanted visit from Maywood police and a vandalized car. After the odd Neighborhood Watch meeting last November, the woman reminded Perez that he had advised her to call police about young men loitering outside her apartment, a chemical smell she thought was related to drugs, and strangers suspiciously running into the building from idling cars.
After she complained to Perez, police loudly knocked on her door in full view of the trouble spot. Then, someone scraped her car with a key. She was afraid to let her children outside after that. Perez listened intently, as she described her fear. “Call me next time,” Perez was now telling her, “and I'll see it doesn't happen again.”
The next day, Perez presided over another community event in which he once again acted as the benevolent political boss: free turkeys and bags of food for everyone — compliments of the city with a $3.8 million reserve and one of the highest unemployment rates in Los Angeles County.
Such events enhance Cudahy's south-of-the-border image. While residents get these nominal handouts, the Weekly has learned, gang members get city jobs. In May 2006, according to a Maywood Police arrest report, police were attempting to pull over 20-year-old city employee Robert Garcia in traffic, when Garcia drove into Perez's driveway and started yelling, “George! George! George!” Police searching Garcia's car found a knife and less than a gram of meth and booked Garcia, identified in the report as an 18th Street gang member, for possession of drugs. Garcia pleaded guilty and is receiving drug counseling, according to the District Attorney's Office.
Perez says he believes in second chances. But when asked by the Weekly whether he believes he should be held accountable for the dangerous conditions in his city, Perez offers an anecdote that suggests he is unable to confront them.
In December 2005, 28-year-old Cudahy resident Francisco Lopez was shot and killed, Perez says, a murder which prompted a woman to loudly criticize Perez in public while her son, an active gang member, looked on. Perez, knowing about the son's gang involvement, said nothing about the mother's hypocrisy.
Clearly proud, Perez tells the Weekly, “The next day the son came and thanked me” for not publicly mentioning his gang affiliation.
Others find that benevolent attitude outrageous. “That is empowering a gangster and telling him it's okay,” says former councilwoman Araceli Gonzalez.
At the same time, Perez has cordial relations with Hector Marroquin Sr., an 18th Street Gang member who, despite touting himself as a gang-intervention worker, also is a street enforcer for the Mexican mafia, according to confidential law-enforcement documents obtained by the Weekly. (See “Broken Bridges,” L.A. Weekly, December 15-21, 2006.)
Perez is hardly shy about his relationship with this alleged mafia associate whose street nickname is “Weasel.” Marroquin owns a bar called Marroking's Deuces on Atlantic Avenue in Cudahy. This month, campaign signs for the longtime Cudahy City Council incumbents adorn the property, the scene of an alleged assault in 2005 during which Marroquin, according to an arrest report, warned a patron who owed him money: “You're messing with the Mexican mafia. I run all of Cudahy.”
Last March, police searched the bar and adjacent buildings in connection with a home-invasion robbery they suspected Marroquin's son had committed. The police found ammunition, drugs and gang literature.
Marroquin's reaction to the police search? He called City Manager Perez.
Perez pauses briefly before conceding that he placed a call to then-Maywood Police Chief Bruce Leflar, going to the top on behalf of a dubious associate. “I'm concerned any time a business owner in this community feels harassed,” Perez says.
Perez fumbles for an explanation when asked why Marroking's Deuces, according to city records, has not had a valid business license since 2004: “I don't know how that happened.” When asked about the community's low perception of the bar Marroquin owns, Perez shrugs, “We've noticed a certain element hanging out there.”
A key figure in the upcoming election is Cudahy Vice Mayor Osvaldo Conde, the owner of a meat market and check-cashing store. Conde, at times a Perez ally, seems to lead a double life.
A regular at the Potrero Club, where he doesn't bother to clear security but just walks right in, Conde was arrested in the early-morning hours in December in Huntington Park on charges of driving under the influence of alcohol, according to information released by Huntington Park Police.
He was not booked as Osvaldo Conde but as Osvaldo Lopez. He has pleaded not guilty to the charge of drunken driving. But the Weekly has learned that Conde has two different birth dates and two different Social Security numbers on business-license records in Cudahy. Conde lives part time in Lynwood, four miles south of Cudahy. Conde would not respond to the Weekly's requests for an interview.
It's hard not to feel for Cudahy, the little city plagued by gang and drug crime — and no apparent interest on the part of local, regional or federal authorities in stopping it. Observers say the government won't act until residents raise a big enough stink — as Maywood residents just did.
“People in Cudahy are immigrants and renters, and all they want is to come home from work and enjoy a barbecue on weekends,” says L.A. Sheriff's Detective Gama. “There are good people there, but they don't want to challenge authority.”
Drug police say that many drug shipments crossing the Mexican border make two stops in San Diego and head straight for Cudahy. Drug runners from Cudahy return from Arizona and Texas and bring new guns into the community, police say. Meanwhile, 18th Street is engaged in violent conflict with a group called Just Blazing It, and the Clara Street and Cudahy 13 gangs remain active.
Nothing is likely to change in Cudahy until elected officials and appointed City Manager George Perez take a different approach. That seems unlikely. Perez is campaigning for the longtime incumbents he appears to influence — and he is guaranteeing victory on March 6. “We've already won,” he declares.
Former councilwoman Araceli Gonzalez is concerned that upstart city council candidates Danny Cota and Luis Garcia, seen as challengers not to their rivals running on the ballot but to Perez, don't stand a chance because they refuse to raise money for their campaigns.
Garcia says he doesn't want to owe anyone. Cota seems like he's just enjoying the thrill of an election. Despite the thuglike tactics that scared off their friend Tony Mendoza, Cota and Garcia are not intimidated.
Still, Garcia confides he has misgivings about life in Cudahy. “Our parents left Mexico to have a better life here,” he says, implying that Cudahy is falling short of that dream.
Gonzalez, who left Cudahy after George Perez took over as city manager, has moved back. She says she is interested in teaching people how to stand up to the city's bullying. But she too knows her limitations. As a longtime resident of Cudahy, she seems to sense the darker forces at play. “Some things are not worth getting killed over.”