The Spanish word casitas translates as “little houses.” In Puerto Rico, casitas are community clubhouses surrounded by gardens, where men and women gather on Friday nights. In Mexico, the word is often used to describe a person’s home as a sort of retreat from the pressures of the day.

But in troubled areas, just ten miles south of downtown Los Angeles, casitas represent a new wave of south of the border-style lawlessness. Hiding behind shuttered storefronts or in gutted homes and closed industrial sites, they function as speakeasies for Mexican and other Central American legal and illegal immigrants.

Enter through a secret back door or camouflaged hallway and you can find nearly anything illicit, including drugs, gambling, after-hours drinking and cheap prostitution. As with the speakeasies of the prohibition era, nobody gets in without an invitation or recommendation.

Similar clubs thrive in many Mexican, Salvadoran, Honduran and Guatemalan towns and villages, where they pay off local law enforcement. There, as well, patrons are drawn to them by the bar girls, alcohol and drugs.

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The cops sometimes arrest casita operators for lower-level felonies, like receiving stolen cases of beer or cigarettes, but the criminal activity known to occur in and around their establishments is much more serious: vandalism, beatings and even murder. However, it’s virtually impossible to find witnesses who will talk because the patrons live in fear of being deported.

Casitas proliferate in areas marked by urban decay, gang domination and municipal neglect, where even legitimate businesses have to pay exorbitant protection money to gangs and other criminal groups. Operating off the books makes them even more vulnerable, so it costs them $500 to $1500 a week just to stay open. And some of that money eventually ends up in the pockets of the Mexican Mafia.

In late 2007, the LAPD launched Operation Treadstone in an 18-month attempt to infiltrate and learn more about the casita underworld. A crew of 22 ATF agents, vice cops and detectives went undercover to mingle with the hardcore gang members who populate the casitas. During the investigation, they were able to procure everything from illegal weapons to methamphetamines. The goal was twofold: to gather evidence against the casita operators and to crack down on the neighborhood bars that were feeding them customers after hours.

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As one ATF agent put it, “A lot of times, people are dropped off by bandit taxicabs. They keep it as low-key as possible. But that is the unique angle in this whole case: These places exist, and they’re a little underworld.”

Despite the casitas’ illegal activities and notoriety, most Los Angeles residents are unaware of their existence. And the authorities don’t pretend to grasp the extent of the problem. They have no idea how fast casitas are spreading in the city’s mostly Latino and black neighborhoods south of the 10 freeway, where the unemployment rate has reached 21 per cent.

When the task force began, the participants were so confused by what they discovered in the gutted old houses and behind barricaded storefronts that they thought the bar girls were human-trafficking victims. Today, they know better. But they’re still struggling to make some headway against this latest and ever-growing South LA crime phenomenon.