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Column: This lawsuit has the NCAA staring down extinction. Is that a bad thing?

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Column: This lawsuit has the NCAA staring down extinction. Is that a bad thing?

There can be few American public institutions more widely destested than the National Collegiate Athletic Assn.

The NCAA spent decades promoting the ideal of the amateur “student-athlete,” barring football and basketball players from compensation while their coaches and university athletic directors collected millions of dollars a year. Its disciplinary system, rife with favoritism and inconsistencies, is honored by member universities more in the breach than the observance.

And when it doesn’t get its way, it hasn’t been shy about bullying — not that it always works, as when it threatened in 2019 to ban California universities from championship games if the Legislature voted to allow payments to those student-athletes.

Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate.

— Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh

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(The measure in question passed anyway and was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom.)

As it happens, the very issue covered by that legislation — compensation for the use of college players’ “names, images and likenesses,” or NIL for short — is at the center of what the NCAA implies could be an extinction event for the collegiate sports system as we know it today, if not for the NCAA itself.

The NCAA’s hand-wringing has come about because federal Judge Claudia Wilken of Oakland has certified an antitrust lawsuit naming the association and its five most important regional sports conferences, the so-called Power Five, as a class action.

Wilken designated three classes of plaintiffs: current and former men’s football and basketball players in the Power Five conferences, current and former women’s basketball players in those conferences, and all other current and former athletes who competed on Division I teams prior to July 1, 2021, and have received NIL payments from third parties under the NCAA’s temporary suspension of NIL payment restrictions.

The athletes who brought the case have asked for $1.4 billion in damages, which under antitrust law would be trebled if they win, for a total of $4.2 billion.

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A judgment of that magnitude, the NCAA says in an appeal brief, “would necessitate curtailing college sports programs across the country.” It says it would face “intense pressure to settle,” presumably on highly disadvantaged terms — at least for the association, the athletic conferences and the administrators who have been running university programs on a business model dependent on paying athletes virtually nothing.

This problem is the product of the transformation of college football and basketball into big businesses so rich and powerful that they often overwhelm the academic goals of their universities.

Who’s responsible? The NCAA and the universities with big-money programs themselves. They built these enormous financial edifices on a business model based on the players’ free labor.

“The hard work of college athletes,” the plaintiffs observed in their lawsuit, “has translated into billion-dollar television deals, multi-million dollar coaching salaries, extravagant facilities, and lucrative commercial licensing and sponsorship agreements” for the NCAA, its conferences and their executives.

Now that the financial ground is shifting under the feet of the NCAA and the richest athletic programs, they’re feeling the pain from the collapse of their franchise.

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The numbers tell the story.

In recent years the Big Ten, Southeastern and Big 12 conferences signed multiyear television deals for football worth a total of more than $12 billion. In 2016, the NCAA renewed its contract with Turner Sports and CBS for broadcast rights to its men’s basketball tournament for $8.8 billion over eight years.

The lawsuit plaintiffs assert that more than 150 football and basketball coaches in the NCAA’s elite Division I earn more than $1 million a year; the best-paid 25 football coaches collect an average of $5.2 million and the top 25 basketball coaches an average of $3.2 million. In fiscal 2021-22, NCAA President Mark Emmert earned nearly $3.3 million, according to NCAA disclosures. Emmert retired earlier this year, but it’s a fair bet that the compensation of his successor, former Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, will be in the same neighborhood.

That should provide context to the NCAA’s long drive to keep student players on a short financial leash, in order to preserve the impression that the players are merely amateurs, playing sports out of love for the game.

The opening of the NIL spigot has provided a bounty for star college football and basketball athletes.

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Seven-figure NIL endorsement deals have been signed by marquee players, topped by USC basketball player Bronny James, the son of Lakers star LeBron James, for $5.9 million from Nike and Apple’s Beats by Dre, among other brands; University of Colorado quarterback Shedeur Sanders, the son of former NFL star and current Colorado coach Deion Sanders, for $4.5 million from brands including Adidas and Gatorade; and University of Texas quarterback Arch Manning, the nephew of retired NFL quarterbacks Payton and Eli Manning and grandson of NFL quarterback Archie Manning, for deals totaling an estimated $2.8 million.

Other top players without gilded parentages are also receiving eye-popping deals.

The NCAA’s position that amateurism is crucial to maintaining fans’ enthusiasm for college football and basketball has been under attack for the better part of a decade. In 2014, Wilken chipped away at the NCAA’s ban on NIL compensation, in a landmark case launched in 2009 with former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon as lead plaintiff.

Wilken recognized big-college sports as a business, not amateur competition. But her solution was to allow NCAA schools to set up trust funds of several thousand dollars per player per year to hold their shares of the licensing revenue they had earned until graduation. She rejected the plaintiffs’ proposal to allow student-athletes to make commercial endorsements, because she accepts that the NCAA and its member schools should protect the students from “commercial exploitation.”

The NCAA had already sustained two blows in 2021. In June, the Supreme Court ruled narrowly, but unanimously, that the NCAA was subject to antitrust laws and that its restrictions on certain education-related benefits for athletes breached the laws. In a concurring opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh ridiculed the NCAA’s argument that fans would abandon big-time football and basketball if they knew the players were getting paid.

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“Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate,” Kavanaugh wrote.

In the wake of the Supreme Court ruling the NCAA, perhaps detecting the writing on the wall, temporarily suspended its ban on NIL compensation while working out a system of new rules.

The following September, National Labor Relations Board General Counsel Jennifer A. Abruzzo issued a memo defining scholarship athletes at academic institutions as employees. Calling them “student-athletes” is legally a misclassification, Abruzzo said; in fact, she explicitly refused to accept the term in her memo, on the grounds that it had been coined chiefly “to avoid paying workers’ compensation claims to injured athletes.”

Abruzzo drew from the Supreme Court ruling as well as a sea change in the law and what she called “the societal landscape,” which she said “demonstrate that traditional notions that all Players at Academic Institutions are amateurs have changed.” Her memo opened the door to fairer compensation for athletes and even to giving them the right to unionize.

This May, the NLRB’s Los Angeles office followed Abruzzo’s lead by filing a complaint against USC, the Pac-12 Conference and the NCAA, alleging that they broke the law by misclassifying college athletes in men’s and women’s basketball and football as student-athletes rather than employees. The case is pending.

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“The conduct of USC, the Pac-12 Conference and the NCAA, as joint employers, deprives their players of their statutory right to organize and to join together to improve their working and playing conditions if they wish to do so,” Abruzzo said at the time.

The truth is that amateurism in college sports — indeed, the very concept of the student-athlete — has always been clothed in the rosy glow of myth. The meet generally regarded as the first intercollegiate athletic contest, the 1852 Harvard-Yale boat race on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, was openly a profit-making event, sponsored by a railroad magnate conniving to gin up tourist interest in the lake and its environs.

In that era, collegiate football was a commercial enterprise employing athletes for pay — “‘tramp athletes’ who ‘roamed the country making cameo athletic appearances’ for pay,” as Justice Neil M. Gorsuch wrote in the 2021 Supreme Court opinion. That system prevailed until 1905, when 18 fatalities on the college gridiron provoked President Theodore Roosevelt to force Harvard, Yale and Princeton to codify rules aimed at protecting players from injury.

Roosevelt’s initiative gave birth to the NCAA. As one of its first acts, the NCAA outlawed payments, direct or indirect, to players, thereby defining players as amateurs. The NCAA rode that concept hard for more than a century. Its lawyers coined the term “student-athlete” in the 1950s, but since under-the-table payments still existed it was offered with a cynical wink.

The NCAA is trying to hold back the tide on two fronts. In its appeal of Wilken’s latest ruling, it is arguing that the judge was wrong to certify the three classes of plaintiffs. College players don’t have the common characteristics needed for a class action, the NCAA asserts; nor would it be fair to apportion, say, revenues from a TV deal evenly among all players on a team.

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“The value of NIL is inherently tied to each athlete’s unique status and characteristics,” it told the appeals court. “A star quarterback can plainly command more money for the use of his image on the cover of a video game than an unheard-of, backup offensive lineman.”

The NCAA’s second front is on Capitol Hill. The association has been trying to persuade Congress to step in. In an appearance Oct. 17 before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the NCAA’s Baker asked the lawmakers to overrule state laws in 30 states governing NIL payment rights by enacting a federal law.

More tellingly, Baker asked the senators to enact a law affirming that “student-athletes … are not employees of an institution” — in other words, to overturn the NLRB’s doctrine in a way that would stifle the earning rights of most players and eliminate such threats as unionization.

“College sports are a uniquely powerful and beloved institution,” Baker said.

How often have we heard this before? It’s a rare industry that doesn’t come to Capitol Hill pleading that it’s so special that it deserves a tailor-made system of laws and regulations. Baker may claim that his industry is unique, but he sounds exactly like every other business leader looking for a legal bailout.

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The NCAA is trapped in a morass of its own making. Its century-old business model has come face to face with 21st century realities, and it needs to deal with the world as it is, instead of trying to keep living in a world of its own.

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Column: They say San Francisco is coming back as a tech hub, but it never really left

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Column: They say San Francisco is coming back as a tech hub, but it never really left

Michael Suswal’s first eye-opening encounter with the vibrancy of San Francisco came in 2017.

That’s when he and his fellow co-founders of Standard AI, an artificial intelligence startup funded by the incubator Y Combinator, moved from New York to San Francisco for the summer.

“Initially we planned on going back to New York,” says Suswal, 44. “But after living in the Bay Area for two or three months, between us we had way more network contacts than we had had in our combined 50 years living in New York.”

Where else would you go that would have more support, more connections, the right type of environment and the right investors?

— Michael Suswal, Generation Lab

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When COVID hit, Suswal told me, he moved to Seattle and worked from home. Last year, when he and a partner opted to co-found a new company, they pondered the best place to start.

“We thought, where else would you go that would have more support, more connections, the right type of environment and the right investors? Building a company is hard. It takes everything you’ve got, and even then there’s an 80% chance of failure. So why would you stack the deck against yourself? It was a no-brainer to come back here.”

Generation Lab, which Suswal co-founded with longevity expert Alina Su and UC Berkeley bioengineering professor Irina Conboy, aims to market a technology that can help customers identify and manage long-term medical conditions.

Suswal’s take is different from what you might have heard from the news media and red-state politicians over the last few years. They spin a narrative of a region — indeed, the entire state of California — in secular decline. Of a Silicon Valley whose best days are behind it. Of wholesale flight of money and talent to new, welcoming places such as Miami and Austin.

But there has never been much truth to that narrative generally, and it’s more dubious than ever today, when the Bay Area has emerged as a center of artificial intelligence investing.

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There is no shortage of newsy nuggets to illustrate the “doom loop” narrative about San Francisco.

On Tuesday, for instance, Macy’s announced that it would close its gigantic store overlooking Union Square sometime in the next three years. But the closure is part of a major corporate retrenchment involving the closings of 150 stores nationwide, 30% of the total.

Nor is there anything historically new about San Francisco-bashing. The practice dates back to the Gold Rush, when the city’s powerful attraction as a jumping-off place for Forty-Niners seeking their fortunes in the nearby hills generated an equally potent counter-narrative.

Hinton R. Helper, a visitor from North Carolina who would eventually gain notoriety as a white supremacist, reported in 1855 on the city’s “rottenness and its corruption, its squalor and its misery, its crime and its shame, its gold and its dross…. Degradation, profligacy and vice confront us at every step.”

It’s a short distance from Helper’s screed to the map that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis displayed during a televised debate with Gov. Gavin Newsom in November, purportedly showing deposits of human waste around San Francisco. (That didn’t help DeSantis’ presidential campaign avert an early demise, any more than Helper’s critique stemmed the flow of fortune-seekers into California.)

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It’s true that the frenzy in artificial intelligence investing has brought a jolt of capital to the entrepreneurial economy of the Bay Area, but that’s merely the latest iteration of a story that dates back to the emergence of Silicon Valley in the late 1960s — or even to the founding of Hewlett-Packard in Palo Alto in 1939.

The region has undergone a long sequence of technology booms and busts over the decades, but each bust has set the stage for the next boom. In the 1980s, the valley’s chipmakers lost their dominance in semiconductor memory to Japanese competitors.

But within a few years, as UC Berkeley economist and political scientist AnnaLee Saxenian observed in her definitive study of the region, “Regional Advantage,” in 1994, new semiconductor and computer startups such as Sun Microsystems had emerged and Silicon Valley had “regained its former vitality.” By 1990, Silicon Valley was home to “one-third of the 100 largest technology companies created in the United States since 1965,” Saxenian wrote.

The key to its enduring stature atop the innovation economy has been the Bay Area’s infrastructure of institutions (Stanford and UC Berkeley) and legal, technical and financial professionals, and its population of technology workers — all having created “dense social networks and open labor markets.”

By contrast, the Silicon wannabes tend to put all their eggs in one basket, and when that basket’s contents spill out, there’s little to fill it up again.

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Miami is a telling example. Its mayor, Francis X. Suarez, tried to establish the city as the center of cryptocurrency financing and innovation. The FTX crypto exchange bought naming rights to the arena where the NBA’s Miami Heat play. International conferences for bitcoin and crypto adherents filled the conference center in 2022.

Miami associated itself with the first “city coin,” a crypto token that Suarez claimed would help boost the municipal budget.

The effort hasn’t panned out. FTX collapsed as its founder, Sam Bankman-Fried, was indicted and subsequently convicted of fraud; the Heat’s arena now carries the name of Kaseya, a Miami software firm.

Attendance at crypto conferences has dwindled. MiamiCoin, which was valued at 5 cents when it came on the market in August 2021, now trades for about 16-thousandths of a cent, if anyone cares — there doesn’t seem to have been a trade in eight months. The city is searching for relevance in the modern technology landscape.

The same sources that talked up the flight of entrepreneurs from the Bay Area to Miami, Austin and other Silicon wannabes are now running articles about startup founders moving back; often the return is accompanied by complaints about the lack of a true innovation culture in their new homes, as well as traffic congestion and housing prices soaring out of reach — much the same as one would find in any large city.

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As my colleague Hannah Wiley reported recently, San Francisco’s adherents are trying to seize the narrative reins by reminding people that the city and region offer unique advantages to entrepreneurs, especially in technology-related fields.

One is Angela Hoover, 25, who launched her consumer-oriented AI search firm, Andi, in Miami with backing from Y Combinator. At first, Miami seemed inviting because it seemed to be host to a healthy startup community.

Attending AI events in San Francisco, however, made it “abundantly clear that the AI community was in San Francisco. It almost feels like you have a front-row seat to a play, and at the same time you’re in the play,” Hoover said.

“Despite what all the doom-and-gloom critics say, [the Bay Area] is still a hotbed of innovation,” Ali Diab, chief executive of Collective Health, told me. That’s what prompted the firm, which manages employer health plans, to return its headquarters to downtown San Francisco after allowing its workforce to disperse to a work-from-home system during the pandemic.

“Obviously, you have the AI revolution being driven from here,” Diab says, “but you also have powerhouse enterprise software companies like Salesforce and Slack.”

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Collective Health also discovered that the cost of office space in San Francisco was lower than elsewhere in the Bay Area, including Silicon Valley proper. About 120 of Collective Health’s 783 employees work in San Francisco, with the others distributed among offices in Chicago, Texas and Utah, or working remotely.

Diab was an early critic of the “doom loop” argument against San Francisco, observing in a mid-October op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle that “as a Bay Area native, I’ve had to listen to people predict the demise of my city for my entire life.” In truth, he wrote, “the oft-cited challenges San Francisco faces are no different from those experienced by any other major city in the United States.”

Housing is “prohibitively expensive in almost every major American city,” he added. “New York, Chicago and Los Angeles haven’t solved their homelessness problems and neither have many other large cities.”

The story of a Bay Area exodus always was overstated. The image of Texas’ attraction for entrepreneurs has never moved much beyond three major tech companies that moved their headquarters there from California — Hewlett Packard Enterprise in Houston and Oracle and Tesla in Austin.

And the significance of these moves may be more imagined than real. In 2020, when Oracle announced its move to Austin from Redwood City, south of San Francisco, it said it was building a campus for 10,000 employees; the company has 164,000 workers worldwide.

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When Elon Musk sought a location for Tesla’s “global engineering headquarters,” the seat of the company’s innovative brainpower, he found it in Hewlett Packard’s former corporate headquarters — not in Austin, but Palo Alto. He announced his decision to move into that space in February 2023 at a joint event with Gov. Newsom.

Other states have never come close to California in the volume of their venture investments. In 2022, according to the National Venture Capital Assn., California firms raised $78.3 billion in venture funding, more than 40% higher than second-ranked New York. Florida ranked fifth with only $2.6 billion, followed by Texas with $2.4 billion (and Texas’ total fell by about half from the previous year).

San Francisco companies attracted nearly $31 billion in venture funding in 2022, according to CBRE. The Bay Area all told attracted $61 billion, accounting for 35% of all venture funding in the U.S.

Venture investing fell appreciably in 2023, and venture-backed companies experienced a spike in “down rounds” — in which their valuations are lower than they were in the previous round of venture infusions — starting in late 2022. But those trends appeared across the entire venture funding universe, and were more likely related to the run-up in interest rates and fears of a recession than to any California-centric phenomena.

In any case, AI was a distinct bright spot, accounting for about 1 in 5 of all venture deals in 2023 and one-third of all venture dollars invested, according to the accounting firm EisnerAmper.

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No one doubts that San Francisco and the Bay Area present challenges. Suswal says he was concerned that recruiting staffers to come to the area would be difficult. When he himself was considering moving back to San Francisco from Seattle last October, he “bought into a lot of the negative aspects of the city that were being published at the time,” he says. “But the city is in better shape than it gets credit for. … All the best people come here, because it’s well worth it.”

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Northrop Grumman could eliminate as many as 1,000 jobs in Southern California

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Northrop Grumman could eliminate as many as 1,000 jobs in Southern California

Defense contractor Northrop Grumman Corp. has told its employees that it could cut as many as 1,000 jobs in Southern California.

The affected employees are part of the company’s space sector and work at facilities in Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach and Azusa. The company said it is working to match those employees with other, existing jobs within the company.

Although Northrop Grumman did not specify a reason for the cuts, the U.S. Space Force recently canceled a multibillion-dollar program to develop a classified military communications satellite with the company after cost overruns, a schedule delay and development difficulties, according to Bloomberg.

Recently, space has been a difficult place to do business. Earlier this month, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory laid off 530 employees, or 8% of its workforce, in anticipation of massive federal budget cuts.

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Northrop Grumman said it has notified the state’s Employment Development Department and filed a Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act notice about the job cuts, as required by law.

“This is ongoing, and a higher number of employees will receive WARN notices than may ultimately be impacted,” the company said in a statement.

Although Northrop Grumman is based in Falls Church, Va., California is a major hub for the company. The defense contractor’s historic 110-acre Space Park facility in Redondo Beach was built at the height of the Cold War and is the birthplace of the intercontinental ballistic missile, as well as the rocket engines that lowered the first crew onto the moon and, more recently, the building of the James Webb Space Telescope.

The company also has a major aircraft facility in Palmdale, where it is building the new B-21 stealth bomber, the center fuselage for the F-35 fighter jet, the RQ-4 Global Hawk drone and the MQ-4C Triton drone.

Northrop Grumman also has facilities in San Diego, Sunnyvale, Northridge, Woodland Hills and Ventura County. In all, the company employs about 30,000 people across the state.

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Video shows burglar vandalizing East Hollywood restaurant, causing $80,000 in damage

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Video shows burglar vandalizing East Hollywood restaurant, causing $80,000 in damage

It was a typical Sunday at El Zarape.

Families enjoyed Mexican food and good vibes at the East Hollywood restaurant inside a strip mall on Melrose Avenue as CicLAvia shut the street down to traffic.

But the next morning, when the first cook of the day showed up Monday at the restaurant, an entirely different scene awaited. She called the owner, Beto Mendez, right away.

At first, Mendez thought it might be some graffiti on the outside of the restaurant. He was wrong.

El Zarape on Melrose remains closed after burglar vandalized the restaurant.

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(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

“The minute I got there I was in shock,” Mendez told The Times in an interview. “I saw the place completely destroyed.”

Mendez said there was $80,000 worth of damage inside.

Chairs were flipped over and tables were askew. One bar had been bashed in with a hammer while all the TVs were spray-painted with graffiti. Spray paint covered one of the bar’s surveillance cameras and seemingly all of the restaurant’s walls. A safe with $20,000 was taken.

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The incident was first reported by L.A. Taco.

Surveillance video shows a man in a light-colored hoodie and dark pants and Nikes shaking a can of spray paint inside the bar before any damage was done. The man then sprays one of the surveillance cameras with paint, video shows. While Mendez could not see any other people in the videos, he assumed that there was more than one vandal, based on the amount of damage, which included “C14” tagged on the walls.

Alberto Mendez is the owner of El Zarape on Melrose.

Alberto Mendez, the owner of El Zarape on Melrose, stands in his restaurant which was recently damaged when burglars broke in and ransacked the place.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Police told Mendez that the vandalism was related to the C-14 gang, also known as Clanton, he said. The Los Angeles Police Department did not immediately provide comment on the situation.

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C-14 is a gang that has existed in Los Angeles for about a century, originating on Clanton Street, which was later renamed 14th Place, according to a website that documents street gangs.

The gang is active in the neighborhood, with tags up and down Melrose.

The group even tagged a local house of worship, Trinity Episcopal Church, scrawling “C14” on its marquee in spray paint.

“This area is like an epicenter for a couple gangs,” said a man who works near El Zarape, who asked to remain anonymous out of safety concerns. “MS-13 and C-14 as well as some other little local cliques. There’s a lot of tagging all around the neighborhood.”

“If someone tagged the inside of the restaurant, it’s pretty serious,” he said.

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For Mendez, the destruction of his restaurant could not come at a worse time. Just two weeks ago, his ex-wife died. Mendez shared custody of their two teen daughters with her and now has full custody of them.

“They have that pressure and that stress of losing their mom already and I haven’t really told them nothing about the restaurant right now,” he said. “I would rather keep it to myself and handle it.”

Mendez is trying to raise money to reopen the restaurant and fix the damage via GoFundMe.

While Mendez said that the restaurant has had relatively few problems in the seven years it has been open, there was an incident after the Super Bowl on Feb. 11, according to Mendez and the other person who worked at a nearby business.

That day, the two men said, after the Kansas City Chiefs beat the San Francisco 49ers in Las Vegas, a man fired a gun into the air near El Zarape, then barricaded himself inside and police SWAT teams had to respond to arrest him.

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