Gang members targeted food trucks as part of an extortion ring that demanded "rent" from operators if they wanted to park at locations in Hollywood, according to grand jury indictments unsealed Monday.
Twenty reputed members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang operated in the Hollywood area for about five years. They approached food truck operators, beginning in July 2007, and demanded $30 to $100 per week as part of the shakedown.
"Each gang member looks at each location, and depending on how busy it is, that's how they will pick how much money they will get from that lunch truck," said Officer Eddie Guerra, who broke the case.
The indictment in the investigation, called "Protecting the Dream," outlines the case of a food truck operator who paid "rent" to MS-13 gang members to operate a food truck near Western Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard. The truck owner was ordered to provide gang members food without payment and pay $30 to $50 as part of a weekly "taxing" plan enforced through the threat of force.
One of the operators was told that he and his employees would be killed if they did not comply, according to the indictment.
The 20 defendants -- they all pleaded not guilty -- were arraigned late Monday and scheduled for an April 18 pre-trial hearing in Los Angeles. They face conspiracy and extortion charges.
"These are the type of crimes that can lead to very heavy sentences," said LAPD Chief Charlie Beck. "These are some folks that are going to do some significant time for their actions."
Formed in Los Angeles by refugees from El Salvador and Central America in the 1980s, Mara Salvatrucha – commonly abbreviated at MS-13 – was recently labeled a transnational criminal organization by federal law enforcement authorities. That designation enables federal agents to freeze assets.