El Zacatecas comes under LAPD scrutiny following an eruption of gunfire outside the bar last week
By Gary Walker
A Mar Vista dive bar that sometimes features bikini dancers and was previously slapped by state licensing officials for acts of “moral turpitude” is under investigation by Los Angeles police in the wake of a shooting near its Venice Boulevard entrance.
Two men believed to have been drinking at El Zacatecas were shot outside the bar at around 2 a.m. on March 28,” said Los Angeles police Lt. David Crew.
Their condition is unknown, and police are searching for two suspects who fled the scene in a Ford Mustang with bullet holes in its rear window.
Community leaders say the shooting is the latest in a string of problems surrounding El Zacatecas that could jeopardize efforts to organize a Mar Vista Chamber of Commerce and establish a thriving business district along the stretch of Venice Boulevard between Walgrove Avenue and Inglewood Boulevard.
South Mar Vista Neighborhood Assn. President Steve Wallace, a chamber proponent who last year led a successful campaign to block a pot clinic from opening nearby on South Centinela Avenue, worries the bar could be an obstacle to such plans.
“Who wants to either invest in opening a business or go and shop at businesses where guys shot at each other after an altercation in a bar that has been visited by LAPD?” asked Wallace, a marketing executive whose family operates a nearby children’s clothing business.
On Saturday, Los Angeles police attended a community meeting on the shooting outside El Zacatecas.
“We are actively investigating the shooting as well as any and all violations within the bar,” said Los Angeles police Mar Vista Senior Lead Officer Adrian Acosta.
El Zacatecas is a cash-only beer bar that caters to a mostly Spanish-speaking clientele and features bikini pole and table dancers on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. A uniformed security guard was stationed at the bar’s entrance this week.
The establishment has been a lightning rod for controversy since it opened in 2003, drawing complaints from residents who don’t think a bikini bar is a good fit for Mar Vista.
In 2004, El Zacatecas had its license to serve alcohol suspended by the California Dept. of Alcoholic Beverage Control [ABC] officials for “moral turpitude and alcohol solicitation,” according to West Los Angeles Zoning Administration documents.
“Moral turpitude” refers to generally unsavory conduct that falls outside community standards.
“Alcohol solicitation,” according to an LAPD advisory bulletin, is when a bar employs informal female wait staff to keep male patrons company while encouraging them to purchase large amounts of alcoholic beverages at inflated prices. Employing alcohol solicitors is a misdemeanor in California.
In 2005, Zacatecas’ then-owner Craig Lightner pleaded guilty to federal human trafficking charges and was sentenced to serve 46 months in prison for smuggling 70 undocumented Mexican nationals into the United States onboard a 44-foot yacht.
Lightner subsequently transferred the bar’s liquor license to ex-wife Sulma Marina Carrasco de Lightner.
Mar Vista Community Council member Bill Koontz said El Zacatecas has been a thorn in the side of the community practically since it opened more than a decade ago.
“The prior owners had a checkered past and didn’t get along well with the neighbors, the Mar Vista Community Council, [City] Council District 11, LAPD and ABC,” said Koontz, the council’s safety and security co-chair.
Carrasco de Lightner was denied a permit to serve wine in 2011, when it was revealed during a zoning hearing presentation that the bar had multiple liquor license violations pending review.
LAPD officers responded to 12 reports of either fighting, battery or public intoxication between September 2009 and August 2011, according to testimony at the planning hearing.
“Given the site’s ongoing problem history and the lack of success in securing the operator’s cooperation, there is no guarantee that any conditions or mitigation measures, volunteered or otherwise, would be successfully implemented or produce positive long-term results,” wrote Zoning Administrator Fernando Tovar.
Once again, the liquor license for El Zacatecas changed hands. In July, Carrasco de Lightner transferred the liquor license for El Zacatecas to sister-in-law Ivis Yolanda Bonilla de Carrasco, according to ABC documents.
At press time, police were not able to provide a list of recent calls for service to the location. Acosta declined to discuss details of the investigation, referring calls to the department’s media relations unit.
Bonilla de Carrasco did not return messages, and a business partner declined to comment.
Koontz said things have been relatively quiet since the bar’s beer license was sold last year, and “all bikini references had been taken down from the signage and from the Facebook page.”
The shooting, however “is kind of a big deal for Mar Vista,” he said.
Wallace said El Zacatecas is simply a bad fit for the neighborhood.
“It’s not something that belongs in a single-family neighborhood less than three quarters of a mile from two schools, 100 feet from a public library and less than a mile from several churches,” Wallace said.
“It’s a bar full of half-naked women doing lap, table and pole dancing,” he said. “I do not know anyone from this neighborhood who visits this bar.”
Editor Joe Piasecki contributed to this story.