Hidden, illegal casinos are booming in L.A., with organized crime reaping big profits

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One thing was clear from the body lying in the Boyle Heights street: The woman was no victim of robbery.

Whoever pumped four bullets behind her left ear didn’t touch the $1,000 in her purse, the bills clutched in her left hand or the diamond ring on her right index finger.

Detectives eventually would learn the woman was part of an underground gambling circuit booming in Los Angeles. She had worked at an illegal casino known as a casita. Like modern-day speakeasies, they are hidden in homes, in warehouses, in the backrooms of smoke shops and behind storefronts that pretend to be legitimate businesses.

Offering mostly electronic forms of gambling, casitas — Spanish for “little houses” — can bring in tens of thousands of dollars a week. The ultimate beneficiaries, authorities say, are members of the Mexican Mafia, the prison-based syndicate that oversees Latino street gangs in Southern California. These men, nearly all of whom are incarcerated, collect a share of the gambling profits in exchange for allowing the casitas to operate in their territory.

“All of these places, someone in the Mexican Mafia has their hand over it,” said Richard Velasquez, a Los Angeles County sheriff’s detective who has busted scores of casitas.