By D. Razor Babb
It was the lare nineteen-nineties, and 61-year old truck driver Toby MacFarland was headed into Los Angeles to drop off a load of paper towels and Dixie cups to a Hollywood big-box store. It was a humid, muggy night and MacFarland was on the last stop of a long haul finally coming to an end. As he pulled into the store lot he didn’t notice that one of the parking lot lights was dislodged [and low-hanging] and his truck trailer caught a bottom edge. As per regulations he called the police to file a report. When the L.A.P.D. showed up their immediate reaction was to blame Toby for the incident, even though store employees pointed out that the light had been in need of repair for some time.
MacFarland was given a breathalyzer test, and felt as though the arrival of over thirty Los Angeles and Hollywood law-enforcement officers seemed a bit over the top. He later told his stepson [Curly Brooks, who related the story for this report], “It was like they has finally caught the Zodiac Killer. I didn’t know if I was going to be shot or arrested.” Curly added, “My Stepdad was known for his smart mouth, what he told them didn’t go over so well.” The outspoken trucker said, “Hey, you guys aren’t with the Rampart Division, are you ?”
He was referring to the well-publicized and long history of widespread misconduct and civil rights violations attributed to the L.A.P.D., especially the Rampart Division. The sergeant on-scene said, “Oh, you think you’re a funny guy, huh? We’ll see who has the last laugh.” MacFarland related to Curly that, “The look on the sergeant’s face turned my blood cold. It was a look of sheer hatred, and the first time since my tour in Nam that I honestly felt like my life was in danger.”
Report filed, delivery made, MacFarland soon forgot about the whole thing. A couple weeks later he was surprised with a summons to appear in an L.A. court to determine his suitability to continue driving trucks. This led to a six-month, laborious and protracted series of psychological testing, court appearances, and time lost from work in order for MacFarland to be able to keep his license.
“I don’t know if they were Rampart or not, but they sure took it personal,” Toby told Curly.
This is an example of an encounter with L.A. law enforcement by an innocent, law-abiding citizen. Imagine not having the relative security of righteousness on your side. L.A. County, with forty-two contract cities and the country’s largest jail system with over fifteen thousand employees, allocates an annual budget of $3.6 billion to the system. There are hundreds of documented cases of L.A. law-enforcement encounters with suspects and civilians where allegations of abuse, harassment, treachery, and even murder have been attributed to groups of rogue police and sheriff’s deputies.
Investigations into law-enforcement gangs led to the formation of the Civilian Oversight Commission (COC), a watchdog agency that reports that one in six deputies are in a gang. “L.A. is ground zero of all things gang,” says COC chairman Sean Kennedy, a former public defender and law school teacher. The report claims that the law-enforcement gang problem is so deeply entrenched that even if the current Sheriff, Alex Villanueva, or any arm of law enforcement wanted to eradicate it, it may not be possible.
“Los Angeles gangs are out of control, most notably, law-enforcement gangs. This included the Sheriff’s Department and the Police Department, they’re infested,” one former L.A. Sheriff’s deputy (now serving time in the California Department of Corrections) told us. “This was going on in the mid 80’s when I was a deputy, it’s been going on for so long that nobody even remembers when it began. It’s still going on today because they don’t have any reason to quit. It’s worse than you can imagine.”
A lawsuit filed by numerous East L.A. deputies and the A.C.L.U. notes that the “Banditos’ gang” “controls the East Los Angeles Sheriff’s station like inmates running a prison yard.” With East Los Angeles so deeply embedded within Hispanic culture, and the extreme prevalence of street gangs, it’s not surprising that the lawsuit charges may have merit.
Rosa Gonzales, now a L.A. County Sheriff Department sergeant, was quoted in an expose with the New Yorker (June, 2022), “I had always heard stories–’Don’t go to the East Los Angeles station.’” But as a Latina with deep roots in the community she was drawn to that troubled, historically Latinx neighborhood. East Los Angeles has a long and storied past involving gang activity. After academy and a mandatory period in the custody division, she landed in the East Los Angeles station as one of three female trainees in a sea of approximately a hundred men. She soon learned that the rumors were true.
While the station captain is the official officer in charge, she found that a shadow force of a hush-hush band of deputies called the “Banditos” wielded the real power. A history of law-enforcement gangs has plagued the sheriff’s department and L.A.P.D. for over 50 years. With names like the Grim Reapers, the Regulators, and the Vikings, these groups have been accused of a long list of atrocities. This includes control through intimidation of fellow officers, retaliation of those who don’t toe the line, extortion and murder.
Deputy gangs control assignments, promotions, days off, and in extreme cases, whether an officer calling for backup gets any. Families of those wounded or killed in police shootings allege law officers earn status and are awarded tattoos (typically on the leg or [ankle]) for acts of violence on suspects.
Gonzales trained under an officer that she discovered was a Bandito. This allowed a measure of protection. “I was never forced to do any type of sexual activity to get off training, but you would hear that rumor.” She speaks of other female staffers who aren’t as well positioned. One of them, Guadalupe Lopez, filed a lawsuit in 2014 for harassment, claiming that female deputies were ordered to perform oral sex on Banditos, and if she wanted to get off training she would comply. The lawsuit was settled by the county for $1.5 million.
Gonzales filed her own lawsuit in 2015—after a sergeant (who later admitted under oath to being a tattooed Bandito) threatened to sabotage her career. Upon filing the initial grievance, retaliation ensued, including failure to provide backup when she radioed for help at the scene of a burglary. “I went from being a shining star at the East Los Angeles Station to walking down the hall and people…looking the other way. When you’re being retaliated against, you become like the plague. You’re untouchable.” The department moved her to another station after determining that her life was in jeopardy.
Her lawsuit was settled for a million dollars, and Gonzales later became a sergeant. However, neither the Gonzales nor the Lopez lawsuit had any impact on the Banditos. Alex Villanueva became sheriff in 2018, winning the election on a platform of being an outsider, claiming the mission to clean up the deputy-gang culture. He announced a policy (in 2020) of zero tolerance on “deputy cliques,” and supported legislation prohibiting gangs in law-enforcement agencies. Yet there has not been a single firing of any deputy relating to gang affiliation, and there has been no effort to determine who Bandito members are.
In fact, the Banditos’ stock seems to be on the rise. Under Villanueva, an alleged Bandito was put in charge of the communications of the department, and subsequently promoted to Homicide Bureau captain, then commander of the Detective Division. Villanueva’s driver, Manny Navarro, a reputed Bandito, denies that allegation, and a mounting number of lawsuits and scandals implicating Villanueva and his wife, Vivian (a retired Sheriff’s deputy) has caused the state attorney general to initiate a review of Villanueva.
Sources we spoke to in the California Department of Corrections [who wish to remain unnamed] say, “If they think it’s only twenty percent [referring to the COC report on the prevalence of deputy gangs], that’s only the ones they know about, it’s a lot more than that. There are criminal gangs and families with a long history of gang affiliation that groom their kids to join the military and law enforcement for the sole purpose of infiltration.
When the L.A. County Civilian Oversight Commission heard testimony about deputy gang tattoos and practices linked to deputy gangs, Sheriff Villanueva declined to testify [after being subpoenaed]. Undersheriff Tim Murakami was also a no-show.
The in-custody, former L.A. Sheriff’s deputy [who agreed to this interview on the condition of anonymity] says: “Villanueva and the rest of them run on the platform of cleaning up the department to get elected, that’s all. The cops see things as good vs. evil. To them the world is black or white, us versus them, and anybody that stands in their way gets run over. It’s still dangerous to talk about this stuff.”
In the New Yorker article, Villanueva said “You can allege all you want, but we operate in the world of what you can prove or not prove.” He went on to say that the complaints about deputy gangs are politically motivated. “Remember, the crowd that is pushing for the deputy gang [narrative] is the very same crowd that’s trying to defund the sheriff’s department. They’re using the deputy gangs as their vehicle.” He denies the existence of the Banditos or any deputy gangs in the department.
However, according to the Office of the Inspector General, at least fifty-four million dollars in taxpayer money has been handed out in lawsuit settlements involving deputies with gang affiliations. Civilian Oversight Commission Director Sean Kennedy said, “If nearly twenty percent of the sheriff’s department is gang-affiliated, that means that every day there are investigating officers and’ gang experts’ testifying in L.A. Superior Court against accused people who are gang members. And no one is telling the accused or the public defender representing them that this person testifying is known to be, or believed to be by the department, a Bandito [or a member of another law-enforcement gang].” A gang enhancement can net a criminal defendant an extra ten to fifteen years added to a prison term if they are found to have been a member of a gang during the time of the commission of their crime. The irony being: gang “experts” testifying against gang members are in gangs as well.
Our anonymous former L.A. Sheriff’s deputy weighed in, “The ‘bad guys’ [criminal suspects] rights don’t carry much weight on the street [or the prison yard]. Cops see the laws as a constraint to their ability to do their jobs, their charged duties. It’s like the ‘Green Wall’ (department of corrections and custody cliques) stuff going on; they all have groups and cliques. The logical question is: why wouldn’t it continue? Why would they stop? There’s ‘Zip Squads’ operating with impunity.”
“Zip Squad” is a name given to a group of rogue undercover law enforcement officers who infiltrate criminal gangs [sometimes for cooperative ends, such as performing criminal acts against rival gangs, or] to set up drug buys. After a sizable buy is scheduled [in a remote area], they zip in and kill everyone, steal the drugs, and pocket the money.
Whether the term “Zip Squad” refers to zipping into the scene, or the sound of body bags being zipped up, the result is the same. “A crematory chamber can hold fifteen to twenty bodies at a time, although legally are only allowed to dispose of one body at a time. Probably half the mortuaries in L.A. County are dirty. Everything in life comes down to money,” the former deputy states, “I never met anyone who thought they made enough money.”
A crematory chamber burns a body at 1600 degrees. The leftover bones are placed in a cement mixer with three, sixteen-pound shot puts. The remaining dust is mixed with lime and the leftovers add up to about a pint. That’s the size of a one-serving milk container. “There’s nothing that can be DNA tested, there’s zero evidence that person even existed. Guys disappear, what can I say? It happens. The uniform makes them think they can do whatever they want,” the former deputy said.
Edward Garcia, a middle-aged CDCR prisoner serving a life term who was arrested in Los Angeles and went through the L.A. County jail system [and was housed on the gang rows] says, “If you got a field of dirt, what you grow there, no matter what you call it, is gonna be from the seeds you plant. The Sheriffs and the police come from that same field of dirt where the L.A. street gangs are grown from. You can’t plant potatoes and expect roses. Everybody grows up in the same field—the cops, the robbers… they all come from the same dirt. It’s gang land.”
Originally published by Incarcerated Journalists Training at Mule Creek State Prison