As California legislators move to reinstitute a decades-long moratorium on new cardrooms in the state, illegal gambling dens continue to thrive, often bringing drugs and violent crime into otherwise quiet neighborhoods.
With only 59 active cardrooms in the state and no legal sports betting outlets, criminal organizations are taking advantage of the demand for all types of California gambling. Underground casinos have existed in the state for a long time, but they experienced a boom during the COVID-19 pandemic and continue to spread.
The cardroom moratorium and crime
While tribal casinos and legal cardrooms support the continuation of a ban on expanding cardrooms for the next 20 years, underground gambling dens attract customers who want to play card games around the clock. Some illegal casinos rake in thousands of dollars a day.
Legal cardrooms offer poker, baccarat, blackjack and Pai Gow. Underground casinos offer those games and more, including illegal gambling machines. Some also sell drugs, run prostitution rings, participate in human trafficking and have caches of illicit weapons.
Known as slaphouses and casitas, the dens hide in plain sight in strip malls, the backrooms of small retail stores and behind houses in residential neighborhoods. A prison-mob syndicate runs a chain of underground Southern California casinos franchised out to local gangs.
The prison mafia gangs also tax the casinos. If the dens don’t pay, they get burglarized. The syndicate uses the profits from the illicit operations to fund other criminal activities, such as narcotics distribution.
Big scores by CA law enforcement
In the past few years, law enforcement officials have busted several illegal casino operations with the help of SWAT teams. Here’s a rundown of some of the biggest scores by local police and federal agents.
This May, the California Attorney General’s announced the results of a years-long operation in Santa Ana. It uncovered a bevy of illegal activity, including underground casinos. Crimes related to the den included drug trafficking, extortion of small businesses, bribery of a police officer and a shooting.
Police made seven arrests and searched for two other defendants. The arrests included a bribed police officer who tried to shield an illegal casino from being investigated.
A string of 36 illegal casinos in the San Diego area have ties to a surge in shootings, stabbings, robberies, burglaries and homicides between 2018 and 2020. The ringleader of the operation, a 42-year-old man, received a six-year federal prison sentence in February. It was his second sentence for similar crimes. Previously, he served two years after a 2015 arrest, but when he got out of prison, he rebuilt his underground gambling operation.
“The density of crime cases and arrests around these locations corresponds to the highest amount of crime” in southeastern San Diego, Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Brehm wrote in the case’s sentencing memorandum.
Santa Clara County
Northern California also has its share of unlawful gambling operations. In April, a multi-agency bust took down seven illegal South Bay casinos in a series of raids. Community residents helped law enforcement officials pinpoint the gambling dens by calling in with tips.
Officers seized $285,000 in cash, illegal gaming machines, guns, stolen mail and a large cache of narcotics.
Law enforcement solutions and enforcement
This month, NBC News aired an investigative report on illegal gambling in the state. The segment revealed the results of an operation in Pomona that included several locations.
A Pomona police officer interviewed in the report admitted that when underground dens get shut down, they pop up again within months. Sometimes, the process takes just a few weeks. One strategy he mentioned to keep the dens from returning is harsher criminal penalties.
California Attorney General Rob Bonta addressed the public after the Santa Ana bust in 2022. He reiterated the state’s resolve to go after the underground casinos and fight the violent and drug-related crime associated with them:
“Organized criminal activity and illegal gambling schemes will not be tolerated in California. Families throughout our state deserve to raise their children and live in safe neighborhoods, free from illicit and illegal activity.”