LOS ANGELES — A Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy received an alleged "Banditos" tattoo six months after a new policy banned cliques in the department, according to the tattoo artist who inked it.

Sheriff Alex Villanueva instituted a policy banning deputy cliques in February 2020 after investigating a fight among East LA sheriff's deputies at Kennedy Hall that resulted in the termination of four employees and the discipline of 22 others.

What You Need To Know

  • In May, LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said "the policy that we crafted is working" regarding his ban on deputy cliques in the department

  • A tattoo artist has confirmed he's tattooed dozens of deputies with the "Banditos" tattoo, including one last September

  • LA County Inspector General Max Huntsman said a "code of silence" has allowed groups like the Banditos to act with impunity

  • The current head of the East LA station said "there are no Bandito-alleged deputies working patrol"

In May, Villanueva said on an Instagram Live news conference at the Hall of Justice that "the policy that we crafted is working."

Inside the LA County Sheriff's Department, certain tattoos are shrouded in secrecy as they are alleged symbols of membership in violent deputy gangs. Spectrum News 1 is protecting the identity of an artist who confirmed he'd inked dozens of deputies with the same "Banditos" tattoo.

The artist explained that over 15 years, he has tattooed close to 40 people. Each tattoo is the exact same drawing, and artists can't change or embellish it. He added that the deputies can get it anywhere on their body.

"It's all the same tattoo; just the numbers are changed," he said.

When Spectrum News 1 confronted the artist at his shop, he said the Banditos are just another customer.

"It's just my job," he said. "I'm just doing my job. I have no control over them."

The artist is now worried about retaliation for confirming the existence of the tattoo, he said.

LA County Inspector General Max Huntsman has been investigating deputy gangs inside LASD for years. He explained that a "code of silence" has allowed groups like the Banditos to act with impunity.

"It's a secret organization in the sheriff's department, gang-like in many ways," Huntsman said. "The Banditos has engaged in violence against fellow deputies. There's allegations that some shootings in East LA are by people who were attempting to become members of the Banditos."

Attorney Vince Miller represents eight deputies suing the county, alleging the Banditos control the East LA station, assaulting and threatening fellow deputies.

"The Banditos, by their very nature, are racists and sexist," Miller said. "They are an illegal organization, an illegal gang. That don't allow African Americans to join. They don't allow females to join."

Shortly after he was elected in 2018, Villanueva claimed he led a major shake-up in East LA, relieving the station's captain of command, transferring 36 deputies and instituting a policy banning cliques but not tattoos. He touted his reforms during the May news conference while admitting its limitations.

"We cannot ban something that is constitutionally protected speech: freedom of association, freedom of speech," he said. "Tattoos are considered speech, so we have to be very careful when we tread in this territory. We drafted a policy that bans the formation and participation in deputy cliques, and we had to specifically identify that this policy covers misconduct in the workplace that can be associated with these groups."

Miller's latest complaint questions whether Villanueva has followed through on his reforms. The high-ranking LASD commander Villanueva placed in charge of the East LA station testified that the 36 transfers were not alleged Banditos but rather general transfers that included retirements and promotions.

"So that statement by Sheriff Villanueva that you transferred 36 people, that is a false statement, right?" Miller asked Cmdr. Ernest Chavez in a March 8 sworn deposition.

"Well, I am not going to accuse somebody of making a false statement," Chavez said. "I don't know where he made that, how he made that. I wasn't present, but the way it is reading at this point, mine contradicts his statement. I think mine adds more clarification."

In the lawsuit, the whistleblowers claim the Banditos inked ten more deputies at a party earlier this year.

"And here we are in 2021, and the problem hasn't been fixed," Miller told Spectrum News 1.

Capt. Rick Mejia, the current head of the station, explained that the department looked into those claims, but they were unfounded.

"We conducted an inquiry based on some of that information that we obtained. The result of the inquiry revealed that there's absolutely no inking party among our personnel," Mejia said, adding that most deputies in East LA are from the community and have a vested interest in serving the public. "I think those things have been addressed already in the past. I can assure you there are no Bandito-alleged deputies working patrol in East LA right now."

The artist said he didn't know anything about an inking party in 2021 but admitted he tattooed a deputy last fall, six months after the sheriff banned deputy cliques. He also didn't rule out the possibility that there could be more fresh ink because while only the few can get the Bandito tattoo, he's not the only one who has tattooed it, he said.

Update: The Chairwoman for the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors, Hilda Solis, weighed in on Spectrum News 1’s investigation Monday vowing to support increased transparency in the LA County Sheriff’s Department and hold those who engage in misconduct responsible:
“It continues to be incredibly upsetting to hear of the continued misconduct and behavior of those who are allegedly members of the Banditos, a well-known deputy gang,” Supervisor Solis said in a statement to Spectrum News 1. “As Supervisor of the First District where the East LA Sheriff’s station is located, where for decades we have heard of the Banditos terrorizing residents, I am grateful to the County’s oversight entities, like the Office of Inspector General and the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, that are committed to uprooting deputy gangs out of the Sheriff’s Department and our communities. These deputy gangs have run rampant, blighted the shine on the badge of the Department, and sowed mistrust in our communities of law enforcement.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated with reaction from the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Hilda Solis. (Aug. 23, 2021)