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L.A. Food Trucks Extorted

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Taco Truck | Photo: waltarrrrr/Flickr/Creative Commons License

There's certainly something to that iconic piece of advice that the three most important qualities to consider if you're ever thinking about opening up your own business are: location, location, location. And that's especially true if you're thinking about opening up your own restaurant. It doesn't matter if you have the greatest chef in the world and use the freshest ingredients in all of L.A. -- if you happen to stick that restaurant in a super-cheap space in the thick of Skid Row, odds are it's not going to last. Which is why the idea of owning and operating a food truck, instead of a stationary restaurant, is so fashionable: The ability to roam around town wherever there's a big event, in addition to the fact that you don't have to pay rent, makes it an incredibly business-savvy idea.

Turns out, though, some of these trucks did have to pay rent in order to park in certain locations. And that rent was going to members of the notorious MS-13 gang.

According to grand jury records that were unsealed this week, twenty individuals in the gang (which also goes by the name Mara Salvatrucha) spent the past five years extorting the owners of food trucks to the tune of $10 to $100 a week, along with free food for the gang members. The price the trucks would be forced to pay depended on how good of business the truck was doing. Think: old-timey well-dressed mobsters walking through 1920s Little Italy picking up "protection money" from street grocers.

Except, nowadays, the gangs aren't as subtle. If the trucks refused to pay?

"(They said), 'If you don't pay us, we're gonna shoot your truck or we're gonna kill your employees,'" she said.

The trucks being targeted weren't the new posh, hip, upscale boutiques roaming the area like Kogi Truck or the Grilled Cheese Truck -- they would certainly alert the cops of that shady business -- but instead were the small mom-and-pop taco trucks that serve the workers at construction sites during lunch hour.

And just who are these folks working their muscles on independent food truck workers? According to Wikipedia, which has a surprisingly dense history on them, the MS-13s are a 70,000+ member gang with chapters all across America, the two biggest ones being in L.A. and San Francisco. They were started back in '80s down in the Pico-Union area of L.A. by immigrants from El Salvador and have been up to no good since. Among non-food truck based crimes the gang's been involved in selling drugs, running guns, prostitution, human trafficking, kidnapping and plenty of murder. Which is to say, these are pretty intense folks, and if you're a mild-mannered food truck operator there's really no way around paying out.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this case is that the LAPD stopped the extortion ring despite the food trucks themselves technically being an illegal operation. (Seeing as most of them don't have the proper permits to be serving food in the first place.) During an interview regarding the case, LAPD chief Charlie Beck was asked how the police navigate the murky boundaries between protecting the trucks from gang members and condoning illegal activity.

"If somebody is a victim of extortion, that is a much more serious crime and has a much broader impact on a community than illegal vending," Beck said. "We would be more than happy to work with any vendor, any victim."

Which means the LAPD made the smart move of, in this case, frying the bigger fish.

So maybe if you happen to pick up some tacos from one of these establishments in the near future, drop a few extra quarters in their tip jars. Hopefully they'll be able to keep 100% of it now.

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