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It was nearly midnight, and Saul Martinez was cleaning up Tacos Los Chemas’ kitchen, a cramped space fragrant with the scent of pork roasted on the trompo.
Just as Martinez, who owns the food truck, was about to put away a salsa container, he saw two men in hooded sweatshirts approach. He didn’t give them a second thought, assuming they were hungry customers looking for a last-minute bite.
Then, Martinez later recalled, a commotion erupted on the sidewalk.
He saw one of the men jab a handgun into the back of a taquero’s head.
“Give me all your money or I’ll kill your friend,” the gunman told Martinez.
Martinez emptied his apron, handing over the day’s earnings. It was hundreds of dollars. But the robber wasn’t satisfied.
“Toda la feria,” he kept repeating in stilted Spanish — all the money.
In late May and early June, Tacos Los Chemas and four nearby food stands in South L.A. were targeted by armed robbers. On July 9, four more vendors in the area were struck in less than an hour. A third string of attacks occurred Aug. 16, when six mobile sellers were robbed in Echo Park, Hollywood and downtown L.A.
Food vendors say they are scared — but can’t afford to stay home from work.
“It’s making me rethink selling food,” said Gladys Lopez, 51, a carne asada vendor in Westlake who uses the extra cash from the job for rent and other necessities.
The Los Angeles Police Department has assigned detectives from its elite Robbery Homicide Division to probe what Deputy Chief Kris Pitcher calls an “emerging crime trend.” In all, there have been more than 20 robberies, many of which could be connected, according to LAPD officials.
On Monday, L.A. County prosecutors charged a 26-year-old man in connection with all six Aug. 16 robberies, which occurred over a two-hour span. The investigation continues into two other suspects tied to those incidents.
In L.A., food trucks such as Tacos Los Chemas are required to have city licenses and county permits. But no permit exists for the makeshift sidewalk stands that have become increasingly popular, resulting in more sellers who operate on the margins and are therefore less likely to report crimes or seek help from industry groups.
Most vendors interviewed by The Times, some of whom said they had permits, declined to publicly disclose their status, saying they did not want to draw attention to the issue.
Amid the crime surge, some vendors have installed safety measures, including cashless payment systems and surveillance cameras. Tacos Los Chemas was robbed in 2018, prompting Martinez to add cameras, which captured the May 28 crime while the truck was parked at East 103rd Street and Avalon Boulevard.
After Martinez handed over the cash in his apron, the robber took money and a mobile phone from the worker he’d grabbed.
Then, Martinez said, the man — whose hoodie-clad partner served as a lookout — demanded cash from a third employee who had been loading items into a van.
“My coworker told him he didn’t carry any money, so the man hit [him] with the gun,” said Martinez, who added that the robbers made off with more than $1,200 and fled in a white Honda sedan.
For Martinez, 27, who took over his family’s food truck business in 2020, the robbery was a bitter reminder of the violence his father endured selling tacos in the Mexican state of Jalisco. In 2005, the elder Martinez was brutally beaten and pistol-whipped by armed robbers. The ordeal prompted the family to move to the U.S.
“We came here to get away from that kind of violence, only to end up experiencing the same thing here,” Martinez said.
The August attacks
In many of the robberies, including at Tacos Los Chemas and those on Aug. 16, two to four suspects pulled guns on vendors before stealing cash and mobile phones, striking as the businesses were closing up for the evening.
Stayshawn Stephens, the man charged in connection with the six Aug. 16 robberies, pleaded not guilty on Monday to 12 felony counts of second-degree robbery with the aggravating factor of violent conduct. Stephens, of Los Angeles, is being held on $1.3 million bail.
Prosecutors allege that Stephens and two others brandished handguns, and in one instance a knife, as they demanded money from the street vendors. Dressed in black, they searched victims’ pockets and stole tip jars before taking off in a white Honda Civic, according to prosecutors.
Capt. Scot Williams of the Robbery Homicide Division said that security camera video linked Stephens to the crimes. According to LAPD sources, the Honda may also be connected to at least some of the robberies in late May and early June.
In one of the Aug. 16 robberies, men entered the Crazy Tacos food truck through an unlocked rear door at around 11:30 p.m., when it was parked downtown at South Broadway and West 9th Street.
A worker noticed them and screamed, prompting one to “hit her back with the gun” and tell her to “shut up,” said owner Mateo Antonio, 45.
Antonio’s 27-year-old son, who was serving as a cashier, opened the register after an armed robber demanded money. Antonio said the robbers also pillaged his workers’ wallets, noting: “They took $40 from the cook.”
Antonio said it was the first time in 30 years that his employees had been robbed at gunpoint. “We really don’t have any way of protecting ourselves,” he said. “These robbers know that, so it’s like taking candy from a baby.”
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Antonio told the woman who was struck with the gun to take some time off.
“How am I going to make a living?” she asked him. “How am I going to pay rent? How am I going to pay my bills?”
On Aug. 17, the day after Antonio Oxlaj was robbed at gunpoint while working at a sidewalk stand in Westlake, he was back at his usual spot selling fried chicken and French fries. A Mayan immigrant from Guatemala, Oxlaj, 18, said he was nervous but felt he had little choice, with bills to pay and no other job.
His 17-year-old cousin, who was him the night of the robbery, wouldn’t be coming back, he said.
Helping vulnerable businesses
Since 2021, Edin Alex Enamorado has provided security to South L.A. food trucks, carts and stands. Clad in bulletproof vests, he and another volunteer, Fernando Gonzalez, often patrol the section of East 103rd Street where Tacos Los Chemas parks alongside other vendors.
But on the nights of May 28 and June 2, when the vendors were robbed, Enamorado and Gonzalez were doing security work elsewhere.
“I felt outsmarted,” said Enamorado, a former truck driver who served as regional field director of the Central Coast for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign.
Enamorado is known for an aggressive style of advocacy. His Instagram page, which has 230,000 followers, is filled with videos of him confronting public officials and leading protests at the homes of people accused of attacking street vendors.
The activist has taken other steps to try to keep food sellers safe. He and Gonzalez created a WhatsApp group chat where South L.A. vendors can report suspicious individuals and crimes.
“We always get there before the police,” said Gonzalez, who works as a security guard at a local cemetery.
On a recent evening, Enamorado walked down 103rd Street and stopped at a taco stand for a chat with worker Francisco Cac, who recently thwarted a robbery. Cac and a colleague were putting food away on the night of Aug. 5 when a man approached them demanding money.
Cac said he armed himself with a knife, and the man doused them with pepper spray before running away.
“I told my boss, ‘Either you get security cameras here or I’ll quit,’” Cac said.
The cameras were installed a few days later.
A history of crime
Mobile food vendors, many of whom are immigrants, have always been vulnerable.
In 2009, for instance, the Fearless Kings tagging crew carried out armed robberies of at least 22 taco trucks in East L.A. The vendors were “easy targets” in part because criminals “know a number of them are Mexican nationals, some who are here illegally and may be reluctant to report it for fear of deportation,” an L.A. County sheriff’s sergeant said at the time. Four taggers were eventually arrested in connection with the thefts.
Now, there are more sidewalk vendors for robbers to target. Laws that decriminalized street vending and streamlined the process for obtaining health permits have made it easier in recent years to set up shop. And the COVID-19 pandemic created economic hardship for many people who turned to sidewalk vending to make ends meet, industry experts said.
That, in part, has led to more unpermitted sidewalk vendors, some of whom are setting up in areas that are less likely to be patrolled by authorities — making them less safe, said Matt Geller, executive director of the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Assn.
“We have an economic downturn — people are desperate — so vendors are putting themselves in harm’s way,” said Geller, who also is chief executive of Best Food Trucks, a booking and ordering platform.
Joel Lopez opened Tacos Delicioso a little more than a year ago, after saving his wages from his job at King Taco. The stand, launched with a $20,000 investment, has a humble location at the edge of a shabby vacant lot near East 92nd Street and South Central Avenue. But Lopez, who is from El Salvador, relishes having his own business.
Lopez and his wife Maria, a Mayan immigrant from Guatemala, were still working a little after midnight June 2 when two men walked up.
“I thought, ‘Oh, there’s more customers,’ and told my wife to take care of them,” said Lopez, 33.
Instead of ordering tacos, the men pulled out guns and demanded money. Lopez retrieved $1,200 from his apron. The robbers then took cash from customers eating at a table and fled.
The money the couple lost put a squeeze on their budget. Instead of buying 200 pounds of meat per week, Lopez said, they got by with half that, sometimes borrowing money to pay the bills. They also cut back on lemons, cucumbers and avocados.
There was an additional expense: Lopez purchased five security cameras. But that didn’t dissuade robbers from targeting Tacos Delicioso again.
On the night of July 25, two men wearing hooded sweatshirts approached the stand, Lopez said, and ordered asada tacos.
Then, one of the men pulled out a gun and cocked it. Lopez handed over his cash, but the other robber took his right arm and twisted it behind his back while checking his pockets for more money. The man then went over to Lopez’s wife and scoured her for cash — including in her bra.
Lopez said he became enraged and eyed a nearby knife. Maria yelled out: “Déjalo, no hagas nada” — Leave it, don’t do anything.
The men made off with $800. Lopez quickly texted the WhatsApp group set up by Enamorado and Gonzalez, explaining that he had been robbed and sharing security camera footage.
Lopez and his wife, who have three children, including an 18-year-old daughter who is legally blind, recently decided to move Tacos Delicioso to a safer location. The second robbery sent Maria into a depression.
“She wouldn’t leave the bed for three days,” Lopez said. “We’re trying to find her a therapist.”