Los Angeles Sheriff's deputies say gangs targeting "young Latinos" operate within department

Deputies allege gangs exist within LASD
Deputies allege gangs exist within LASD 06:39

A CBS News investigation has uncovered allegations of gangs existing within the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, possibly for decades. Current deputies out of the East Los Angeles station say the existence of gangs within law enforcement has been a problem in the area.

The deputies, who do not want to be identified for fear of reprisal, claim the most prevalent are called the Banditos — comprised of mostly Latino deputies who serve predominantly African American and Latino neighborhoods.

"They operate as a gang. They commit crimes, they assault people," one deputy told CBS News' Maria Elena Salinas.


Learn the stories of four Latino victims whose families say they were targeted by law enforcement.


The deputy said the gang is based out of East L.A., and that members who have become Banditos there have been promoted and "they've spread all over the county."

Members of the gang identify themselves with a tattoo, another deputy claimed.

They said the "initiation" process could involve "getting a shooting," adding that potential members would "do anything for these guys."

"If you get in a shooting that's a definite brownie point," the deputy said.

According to the deputies, members would plant weapons on suspects to justify those shootings.

"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," one deputy said. "And they would say, oh, it was a phantom gun. It was something that really wasn't there."

The same deputy said they had personally witnessed that occurring. 

And despite the majority of deputies involved also being Latino, another deputy said the gangs "do racial profile."

"It's like Latino gangs. They target other young Latinos," the deputy said.

That targeting is what grieving mother Lisa Vargas has contended happened to her 21-year-old son Anthony Vargas, who aspired to be a chef. He was shot 13 times by sheriff's deputies while on his way home.

"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 and we don't have his smile," she said.

Vargas claimed her son's death was part of the gang's "initiations."

"In order for them to become a prospect, their thing is they have to kill somebody," she said.

She filed a lawsuit against Los Angeles County and the deputies who shot her son. The suit alleges that the 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."

Sheriff Deputy Nikolis Perez and Deputy Jonathan Rojas, who shot Anthony Vargas, are "prospects" of the Banditos gang, two of the anonymous deputies alleged. 

Asked how they knew, one deputy replied "just personal conversations with them, and them saying that was one of their main goals to be a part of this gang."

However, if someone were to refuse to comply with the gang's demands, the officer said, "They stop giving you backup, which is very dangerous. They ignore you."

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has publicly denied the existence of gangs within his department. On a video posted to the LASD website, Villanueva warns the department's employees against joining such groups. 

"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," Villanueva said in the video.

One of the anonymous deputies who spoke with CBS News said, "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," they said.

Newly-elected Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón said his department takes the allegations "seriously," and that he is committed to upholding the law.

"If in fact we believe that there is criminal activity within the sheriff's department then we will deal with it accordingly," he said.

As for Lisa Vargas, the California mom wants justice to go beyond her son's killers.

"Justice for me is a whole long list," Vargas said. "Because not only is it these officers being held accountable for homicide, for murder, it's everybody else involved. I want the whole system cleaned out."

A federal grand jury investigation has been convened. Sheriff Villanueva declined to comment.

An investigation into the killing of Anthony Vargas by the former district attorney's office concluded that the deputies "acted in lawful self-defense and defense of others when they used deadly force against Anthony Vargas." 

Deputies Rojas and Perez deny being members or prospects of the Banditos.