East LA Sheriff's Station. Photo from Facebook page.

A lawsuit filed this week claims the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is “permeated by criminal gang culture” and details how members of a secret “criminal gang” allegedly control operations at the East Los Angeles Sheriff’s station.

The lawsuit filed this week by eight Sheriff’s deputies alleges that the clique known as the “Banditos” control the station “like inmates running a prison yard.” Members of the clique maintain control of the East LA station by intimidating other deputies, enforcing a strict code of silence and holding on to key positions such as dispatcher, scheduling deputy and training officer. 

“Banditos” tattoo.

Like street gangs, the Banditos extract taxes from young Latino deputies –money for clique members’ parties and travel and even sex from female deputies, the suit further alleges. The Banditos only recruit Latinos and groom the young deputies they are considering for membership and assign them mentors.

“They see who is eager to belong, who they can manipulate, who they can control easily,” one of the plaintiffs told LAist. Although the plaintiff’s name is listed in the lawsuit, he said he did not want to be identified out of fear of retaliation.

The suit mentions Carrie Robles, a young deputy who was responding to a report of a shooting on November of 2017 when her vehicle was involved in a chain-reaction crash near Whittier Boulevard and Indiana Street that left two young boys dead. The suit says Robles, who was found to be at fault but was not criminally charged, was a “Banditos associate” being supervised by a “shot caller” in the gang during the accident.

According to the suit, retaliation for deputies who don’t follow the Banditos’ orders include getting overloaded with excessive calls and being told routine calls are emergencies.

LAist first reported on the lawsuit filed Tuesday in Los Angeles Superior Court by seven men and one woman, including two men with 10 years each in the department. The plaintiffs were all assigned to the East LA station but their attorney Vincent Miller told LAist they all asked to be transferred to other stations earlier this year. They claim they were “threatened and bullied in attempts to get them to conform to the corrupt culture or leave the station” and that they were denied backup help on dangerous calls.

The plaintiffs are Deputies Art Hernández, Alfred González, Benjamin Zaredini, David Casas, Louis Granados, Mario Contreras, Óscar Escobedo and Ariela Lemús. Their allegations include racial discrimination, harassment, assault, battery, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress and civil rights violations. They seek unspecified damages, according to City News Service.

Several news organizations who reported on the lawsuit this week said the Sheriff’s Department did not immediately respond to requests for comments. In 2014, L.A. County paid $1.5 million to settle a lawsuit filed by a female deputy who said she was bullied and harassed by Banditos.

Along with the county, defendants named in the suit include three Banditos assigned to East LA: Raphael “René” Munoz aka “Big Listo”; Gregory Rodríquez aka “G-Rod”; and David Silverio aka “Silver”. The complaint says a fourth defendant, Michael Hernández aka “Bam Bam,” was assigned to Men’s Central Jail.

The suit accuses all four of being involved in an attack at a September 2018 off-duty party at Kennedy Hall that left two of the plaintiffs unconscious and sent them to the hospital. The four were placed on paid leave by Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who ordered an investigation of the party after taking office in December 2018.

Last June, Villanueva said he was working to rebuild the leadership team at the East L.A. Sheriff’s Station and issued a department directive that prohibits participation in “any group which promotes conduct that violates the rights of employees or members of the public or otherwise encourages conduct that is contrary to department policy.”

But the lawsuit accuses Villanueva of failing to properly address the decades-old issue of cliques within the department, whose members include some of its highest-ranking officers. Even with the new leadership, the lawsuit contends that Banditos still run the East L.A. station and that it remains a hostile workplace.

In July several news outlets reported that the FBI is investigating the Banditos, but the agency has not denied or confirmed the investigation.

The Banditos are known for wearing matching tattoos of a skeleton with a thick mustache wearing a bandolier and a Mexican sombrero with the Roman numeral II and holding a smoking gun over a banner bearing the letters ELA. The lawsuit filed Tuesday says there are nearly 100 deputies associated with the clique; about 30 members and prospects work at the East L.A. station and the others work elsewhere or have retired.

The lawsuit also details how the Banditos violate the civil rights of the East LA residents they are supposed to protect. Deputies at the East LA station  “have generated an excessive amount of stops and arrests in the community because of the pressure from the Banditos to inflate numbers, to satisfy … illegal arrest quotas,” the suit alleges.

The clique also pressure deputies “to ignore constitutional protections which require there to be probable cause to stop and arrest civilians,” which leads to the “planting and manufacture of evidence and other illegal acts,” according to the complaint.

Photo above: East Los Angeles Sheriff’s station from its Facebook page.

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