By Nathan Solis
In claims filed with Los Angeles County on Thursday, a group of Latino officers say a street gang within the ranks of the LA County Sheriff’s Department assaulted them and continues to operate a clique that intimidates and harasses anyone who speaks up about their actions.
The claims describe a mentality similar to the gangs law enforcement contend with in the field, but these individuals work in the sheriff’s department. The officers say superiors have done little to dissuade the actions of the “Banditos” gang.
The matter came to a head this past September, when the officers say several members of the gang assaulted them after a department party.
Attorney Vincent Miller, who filed the officers’ claims with the county Thursday, said the department has been aware of the gang culture for years. He noted a similar lawsuit filed in 2014, in which a female deputy said she was bullied and harassed by the “Banditos.” She settled out of court for $1.5 million.
“They don’t do anything to fix the problem,” Miller said in an interview. “You look at the actions from the department to quiet down the incident.”
The Banditos are officers who work out of the department’s East Los Angeles station, according to the claims, and have for years driven non-gang members out of the station.
The gang members oversee all the operations at the station and are protected by superiors who make sure they are not disciplined or face any consequences for their actions, according to a 16-page attachment to the claims.
Miller said the gang pushed young Latino officers to make more arrests, meet illegal quotas and taint many of their arrests through intimidation.
In May 2018, training officers Benjamin Zaredini and Louis Granados took their concerns about harassment from the gang to their superiors. Multiple officers were interviewed as part of an investigation that ultimately went nowhere, according to the claims by five deputies and two veteran officers.
A superior officer, Sgt. Patty Estrada – referred to as “Pink Hand,” a play on the Black Hand tattoo worn by the Mexican Mafia prison gang – made sure the Banditos members were not disciplined, according to Miller.
Miller described a tense situation developing at the station over the summer of 2018 after the officers brought their concerns to their superiors.
“After Mr. Zaredini and Mr. Granados complained it was like a war zone,” Miller said.
Tensions came to a head when the gang members assaulted young officers leaving a department party on Sept. 28, 2018, according to the claim.
The officers also note newly elected Sheriff Alex Villanueva worked out of the East Los Angeles station, knew of the gang culture and attended the party.
In a statement, Villanueva said the department would not tolerate any form of hazing or harassment within the organization and added the allegations made in the claims happened before he took office.
Deputies claimed they were attacked by officers Rafael Munoz aka “Big Listo,” Gregory Rodriguez aka “G-Rod,” David Silverio aka “Silver” and Sgt. Mike Hernandez aka “Bam Bam” after Villanueva left the party.
The named defendants surrounded officer Alfred Gonzalez and when other officers intervened they were attacked by several other Banditos, according to the claims. Gang members beat officer Oscar Escobedo, who was unconscious after being choked, and officer Art Hernandez was attacked and jumped while he was on the ground along with Zaredini and Granados.
All six officers who were attacked are young Latinos. They say about 100 witnesses saw the attack but did not intervene.
Several of the officers were taken to a hospital after the attack. According to the claim, there is video of the Banditos at the station going over their story.
The sheriff’s department routinely hires gang members who go on to target rookie officers, refuse to provide backup for officers not part of the gang and in one incident removed the bullets from an officer’s gun so they would be put in danger while in the field, according the claim.
The claims are a prerequisite to a likely lawsuit against the county. The sheriff’s department said supervisors at the station have been replaced and an investigation is underway.