Imagine this: You're out drinking when the bartender lets you know it's last call. But you're not quite ready to go home yet – in fact, you'd actually like a few more drinks. (Whether or not that's a good idea is debatable.)
That's when you feel another tap on your shoulder. The waitress, who's been serving you all night, lets you know of a place where you can keep drinking. She gives you an address and says it'll open around the time the area bars shut down for the night.
You decide to go for it, especially because there's a taxi service – a black car waiting outside the bar picks you up and drives you to a nondescript house (or church, or store), where the driver lets you off.
Security is pretty heavy – there's a couple of doors leading into the establishment, at least one of which is flanked by no-nonsense gang members. They pat you down, eyeball you and then give you the signal to go in.
You look around – it's not set up like a typical house. It's a pretty run-down space, but there's a bar, as well as some tables set up for drinking. In one corner, there's around 10 slot machines set up. Then you look down, and see something you won't find in your everyday bar:
Baggies of crystal meth. A gun or two. There's also a flow of women leading men to different, isolated parts of the house – prostitutes.
You're in a casita.
Not as innocuous as it sounds
Officer Gabe Ruiz is an investigator for 77th Street Division's vice unit, which focuses on "vice-related activities": prostitution, counterfeit goods, "massage parlors" and the casitas make up some of that. Ruiz is 77th's resident expert on casitas, which literally translates to "little houses."
"A casita is an underground club," Ruiz explained. "Typically they operate after hours, so once the bar shuts down at 2 [a.m.], the casita opens at 2, 2:30. Some will be open until 8 or 9 in the morning." Others are open 24 hours, he noted.
Ruiz says the casitas themselves are problematic, but an even bigger problem is the ripple effect they cause.
"The big thing is the type of activity that happens because the casita's there," he explained. "The homicides, the robberies, the breaking into cars."
And with each casita making at least $10,000 every month, the stakes are high.
Ruiz explained how a casita starts up: Typically, a prospective casita operator (who's usually undocumented) will buy or rent a piece of property through a proxy – "the person actually running the casita won't have their names on any paperwork."
Once the property is bought, the operator will have to contend with the area's gangs. In order to run a casita in gang territory – that is to say, anywhere in South L.A. – operators have to pay taxes to the gang. In return, the gang members provide security during the casita's "business hours." Gang members also tax casita operators for the narcotics and slot machines – "about $200 per slot machine," said Ruiz.
There's also an element of organized, ruthless crime.
"All of these Hispanic gangs are run by the Mexican Mafia," said Ruiz. Part of the taxes the local gangs collect goes to the Mexican Mafia, the members of which Ruiz described as "killers."
"They're the biggest prison gang," he said. "They control the streets, they control the prisons."
Even with the taxes, the casita operators take home a considerable sum of money. But that's because they're careful – the casita clientele is a "very small community," said Ruiz, consisting of gang members, regular folk and, more ominously, cartel members, probably of the Sinaloa variety.
"When the cartel is there, the gang members know not to mess with them," said Ruiz. "If the cartel members get drunk and out of hand, they don't even get involved."
Dangerous little houses
"You've got guys wanted for homicides in there," said Ruiz. "If somebody knows you've got a warrant [on them] and they know they're going to jail for a long time – they might do anything to avoid it."
Ruiz estimates that in 77th, at any given time, there's "anywhere from five to 10" casitas up and running.
Finding the clientele is a fairly simple process, he said. "The waitresses that work the bars, they also work the casitas," he said. Same with owners, too – a bar owner may also own a casita on the side. (But you'll never see them while the casita's operating.)
Waitresses and the "taxi drivers" – who drive people from bars to the casitas in their own cars – will invite customers "that are drinking and look the part," said Ruiz. "You have to know somebody or be invited."
That's just the first step.
"It's not some place you just walk into," he said. "There are usually at least two doors to get inside of the casita and they're locked," he said. "Gangsters are patting people down – you're not going to be able to get in there with a weapon."
Once you do get in, he added, you're stuck there, and the gang members will be watching you. They'll quickly become suspicious of a person who's, say, texting or on the phone a lot.
For folks who make it inside, Ruiz said, the waitresses' job is to make them buy as much beer as possible. "Once she gets more comfortable, she'll ask you – 'Hey, do you want something else? You want some crystal [meth]?'" Buying sex is also an option.
The people working in the casitas – the bartender, the waitresses, the operator – don't tend to be gang-affiliated themselves. Nearly all of them are undocumented, said Ruiz.
And there are unspoken rules, he added. You don't talk about the owner. "You're not supposed to look at the gang members, because they're going to want to fight," he said. Be particularly deferential to the cartel members. And maybe most importantly:
"If the police come, you don't say anything."
Law enforcement and the casitas
The casitas are so dangerous, says Ruiz, that undercover officers don't even go in there. Instead, 77th uses informants to get the point where they can obtain a warrant and then raid a place.
The buildings themselves are usually pretty inconspicuous – he's seen casitas housed in churches, houses and 99-cent stores. They'll often have high-quality cameras on the front and back doors. "So when we hit these places we're compromised right off the bat," he said. "We've got to get in quick before they start dumping guns, dumping dope."
Regarding his previous casita raids, Ruiz says, "You name it, we've found it inside these places." That means guys with murder warrants, drugs (meth and cocaine), slot machines, guns, condoms. He's seen holes punched in the wall and then drugs hidden in that hole; he's found the room where the prostitutes do their business with their johns.
Ruiz said "a lot of our main players are in custody right now," but wouldn't go into the police's methods of investigating casitas too much, in the interest of not compromising any current casita investigations. When he first started at 77th, he and his team carried out a raid of 25 casitas, and succeeded in shutting them down for a few months. Since then, they're been hitting them more slowly, raiding eight over the last three years, he says.
"Lot of times what they'll do is move on to a new location – but if they get shut down there, they might one back to the old location," he said. That's happening now – even though he says "it's a little quiet right now," with a lot of movers and shakers in custody, some people are working on opening up new ones.
Ruiz emphasized that the biggest problem with the casitas is the violence they cause – what happens behind those doors is also problematic, but secondary to murders, assaults, robberies. Interestingly, there seems to be an element of agreement between police and the Mexican Mafia on this, although for very different reasons.
"Typically, there is relative peace," he said. But when rival gangs – all of whom pay the same Mexican Mafia – get heated and clash over casita issues, that's bad for business, because violence and shootings attract police attention, which means if a casita doesn't want to be forcibly shut down by the cops, it's got to voluntarily close its doors for a while to stay under the radar. It's losing money while its doors are shut, and that's the last thing the Mexican Mafia wants.
"When all these shootings were going back and forth between the rival gangs over casitas, they were basically told by the Mexican Mafia to take care of the problem, or they'd take care of it for them," said Ruiz.
For now, Ruiz says luck plays a fairly important role in finding these casitas.
"You don't get a lot of complaints on them," he said. "People are afraid of the gangs, so people don't usually call in. A lot of times it's just by chance that we get some of them."