LOS ANGELES (CBS/AP) — Prosecutors said 20 members of a Los Angeles gang pleaded not guilty Monday to felony charges of running a food truck extortion racket in Hollywood.
Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons said 20 MS-13 gang members in five separate cases were arraigned. Five others have not yet been arraigned and their indictments remain under seal.
The grand jury indictments, unsealed Monday, charge the alleged gang members and associates with conspiracy and extortion for shaking down food truck operators during a five-year period that started in 2007.
According to court documents, gang members began approaching owners or their truck operators in July 2007 and demanding $30 to $100 in weekly “rent” money to operate their trucks in Hollywood.
A female food truck employee, who wished to remain anonymous, said the company she worked for was targeted by gang members.
“They said, ‘Give us at least $100 every week or more and we’ll give you protection.’ They also said they’ll come here and eat for free,” she said.
If the gang’s demands weren’t met, the food truck employees were told there would be severe consequences.
“(They said), ‘If you don’t pay us, we’re gonna shoot your truck or we’re gonna kill your employees,’” she said.
The woman told KCAL9’s Louisa Hodge that the owner of the food truck told police about the gang threats and put up security cameras.
“The police kind of started circling the area more. These guys came with weapons and one of them was actually saying that he was going to shoot us, but then police just drove by and then the guy ran and they started chasing him,” she said.
The alleged gang members were indicted after a yearlong investigation dubbed “Protecting the Dream” by the Los Angeles Police Department and other agencies, according to the District Attorney’s Office.
Among those charged in the indictments with felony counts of “conspiracy to commit a crime” and extortion for having “extorted money or other property…by means of force and threat” are Marlon Juarez, aka Jose, aka Bandit, 27; Jose Parada, aka Temper, 23; David Alfaro, aka Cartoon, 20; Albert Chojolan, aka Moreno, 32; Martha Lara, aka Secury, 63; Gerson Perez, aka Hershey, 32; Juan Gomez, aka Clumsy, 27; Angel Navarro, aka Little Shady, 18; Edin Juarez aka Trebu, aka Trebol, 25; and Francisco Ruiz, aka Fat Boy, 19.
The alleged gang members are scheduled to return to court April 18.
Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, is a Los Angeles gang with Salvadoran roots and a violent reputation; federal officials have labeled it a transnational criminal organization.
(TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)