CBS News spoke exclusively to current deputies out of the East Los Angeles station, who say the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department has a huge problem with deputy gangs within the department. Maria Elena Salinas reports.
GAYLE KING: Welcome back to "CBS This Morning." An explosive CBS News investigation looks into alleged gangs of deputies inside the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Our investigation found these deputies are allegedly encouraged to shoot people as part of their initiation. The California Attorney General launched a civil rights investigation into these claims last month. Maria Elena Salinas spoke exclusively with several deputies who claims these gangs have existed for decades. Maria Elena, good morning to you. This is very, very troubling stuff.
MARIA ELENA SALINAS: Good morning, Gayle. Yes, it is. You know, usually when we think of gangs, we think of street gangs, like MS-13 or the Crips or the Bloods. CBS News spoke exclusively with current deputies out of the East Los Angeles station who claim that the LA Sheriff's department has a huge problem. [PROTESTERS CHANTING]
MARIA ELENA SALINAS: It's an open secret that deputy gangs have existed within the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department for decades.
- They operate as a gang. They commit crimes. They assault people.
MARIA ELENA SALINAS: Currently, the most prevalent are the Banditos, comprised of mostly Latino deputies who serve predominantly African-American and Latino neighborhoods. These deputies do not want to be identified for fear of reprisal. CBS News has agreed to blur their faces and substitute their voices.
- It's based out of East LA, but you know members that have become Banditos in East LA have been promoted, and they've spread all over the county.
MARIA ELENA SALINAS: How do they identify themselves?
- With a tattoo.
MARIA ELENA SALINAS: Is there an initiation process to join the gang?
- You could say that. They could go from you getting a shooting or-- you know-- they do anything for these guys.
MARIA ELENA SALINAS: You said they get shootings. What do you mean by that?
- If you get in a shooting, that's a definite brownie point.
MARIA ELENA SALINAS: And according to these deputies, to justify those shootings, they plant weapons on suspects.
- There's been multiple occasions where they say, hey, we got a guy that has a gun, and he's running from us. In reality, that person never had a gun. And they would say, oh, it was a phantom gun. It was something that really wasn't there.
MARIA ELENA SALINAS: So you have personally witnessed that?
MARIA ELENA SALINAS: A lot of these officers are Latino, so why are they targeting other Latinos? Is it racial profiling? Self-loathing?
- They do racial profile. It's like Latino gangs. They target other young Latinos.
MARIA ELENA SALINAS: Which is what Lisa Vargas has contended all along. Her 21-year-old son Anthony Vargas, who aspired to be a chef, was shot 13 times by Sheriff's deputies while on his way home.
LISA VARGAS: You know, we have videos with his voice and his giggle, and we have to play that, you know, because we don't have his voice no more. We don't have his smile.
MARIA ELENA SALINAS: Lisa Vargas filed a lawsuit against the county of Los Angeles and the deputies who shot her son. The suit alleges that individuals who shot Anthony were members of the Banditos gang, or prospects, and that membership in the Banditos gang included using excessive force and shooting those who are unarmed.
LISA VARGAS: They have initiations and, in order for them to become a prospect, their thing is they have to kill somebody.
MARIA ELENA SALINAS: Anthony Vargas was shot by Sheriff's deputy Nicholas Perez and Sheriff's deputy Jonathan Rojas. Are they also part of the Banditos gang, or prospects for the Banditos?
- Prospects, yes.
- They're prospects.
MARIA ELENA SALINAS: How do you know they were prospects?
- You know just personal conversations with them, and them saying that was one of their main goals, to be a part of this gang.
MARIA ELENA SALINAS: If you refuse to comply with their demands to join the gang, what happens?
- They stop giving you backup, which is very dangerous. They ignore you.
ALEX VILLANUEVA: I've seen no evidence of three or more deputies engaging in a criminal activity with a unifying symbol, whose primary purpose is to commit crime.
MARIA ELENA SALINAS: LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has publicly denied the existence of gangs within his department. On a video posted to the LASD website, he warns the department's employees against joining such groups.
ALEX VILLANUEVA: Any employee who aligns with a clique or subgroup, which engages in any form of misconduct, will be held accountable. I do not want you joining these alleged cliques anymore, period.
- The Banditos believe they can get away with anything. And you know they're not going to have any type of consequences for their actions.
GEORGE GASCON: No one is above the law.
MARIA ELENA SALINAS: Newly elected LA County District Attorney George Gascon says he is committed to upholding the law.
GEORGE GASCON: We take this allegation seriously. And if, in fact, we believe that there is a criminal activity within the Sheriff's Department, then we'll deal accordingly.
- We need to remember it's not just the mothers.
MARIA ELENA SALINAS: Lisa, what does justice look like for you and for your entire family?
LISA VARGAS: Justice for me is a whole long list. Because not only is it these officers being held accountable for homicide, for a murder, it's everybody else involved. I want the whole system cleaned out.
MARIA ELENA SALINAS: A federal grand jury investigation has been convened. Sheriff Villanueva declined to comment. An investigation by the former district attorney's office claims that the deputies-- and I quote here-- "acted in lawful self-defense and defense of others when they used deadly force against Anthony Vargas." Deputies Rojas and Perez denied being members of the prospects or Banditos. Anthony.
ANTHONY MASON: Maria Elena, why did Sheriff's deputies allegedly target Anthony Vargas?
MARIA ELENA SALINAS: Well, Anthony Vargas was coming home from a prayer group at a party in his housing project when he was approached by the deputies. Now, there was a robbery nearby, however the victim of the robbery had described the suspects as three male Hispanics between 35 and 40 years old. Anthony Vargas was only 21 years old. And the victim later, when he was shown an array of photos, did not identify Anthony Vargas. Also, there was no DNA or fingerprints on the weapon that the deputies allege that Anthony Vargas had on him. And his case is only one-- or his murder-- is only one of several young Latinos who have died in the hands of alleged deputy gang members.
ANTHONY MASON: Such a disturbing report. Maria Elena, thank you so much.
GAYLE KING: Anthony, it's so troubling. You have deputies in the department saying this exists. You have the sheriff saying, no it doesn't exist. Sounds to me like they need an outside investigation or something. You have Mrs. Vargas talking about the loss of her son, who doesn't appear to have been in a gang. It's very, very troubling.
ANTHONY MASON: Very troubling.