Just three days after Los Angeles police occupied the Pico-Union area in a massive show of force to drive away drug dealers, they reduced their manpower to a skeleton crew Saturday.
At noon, only six officers were patrolling a 27-block area that had been occupied by more than 160 officers two days earlier. On Thursday, police moved into the square-mile area west of downtown with foot patrols and sawhorse barricades to eliminate what authorities have described as the busiest street-level drug bazaar in the city.
A dozen more foot-patrol officers were sent into the area Saturday night. But limited police manpower will eventually cut back even those efforts.
"This thing has shown that we can make an impact in any problem area with the right resources," said Lt. John Desmond, watch commander at the Rampart Division. "The frustrating thing is, our street staff is so small we can't make this impact on a regular basis."
In all, 104 people have been arrested in the operation, including a dozen for narcotics offenses. Scores of abandoned vehicles were towed away and city workers scrubbed away graffiti and hauled away a mountain of trash, including the seedy couches that drug dealers sat on to conduct their sidewalk transactions.
There were indications, however, that despite their absence, the drug dealers were not far away. On Friday night, most of the Rampart division's narcotics-related disturbance calls were coming from the Central Division nearer downtown, a signal that many drug dealers had moved to new ground, police said.
And in MacArthur Park, just outside the boundaries of what police had called "Neighborhood Rescue Operation," officers found the body of a young Latino man who had been shot once in the head. Detectives said they had not determined whether the shooting was drug related.
By Saturday night, the dealers seemed to have their confidence back.
At about 8 p.m., just after a patrol car passed through the park, young men were already calling out "weed" and "rock" in an effort to woo passers-by. Fifteen minutes later, at least four attempted drug sales were observed around the perimeter of the park.
"Hey, homes, what do you want?" one man called from a grassy area. "I got it."
A few blocks away, near where a police barricade in the middle of the street still announced "Residents Only," dealers were whistling at motorists to make a purchase.
While there were fewer police in sight Saturday, residents still felt secure that help was never far away.
"There was an argument on the street at 2 a.m. this morning and within five minutes there were 15 patrol cars here," said Enrique Garcia, an apartment building landlord. "It was truly amazing."
Like many of his neighbors, Garcia was outside Saturday, hosing down the sidewalk.
Now, Garcia said, he can sleep nights without being awakened by the howl of sirens or the clatter of a police helicopter.
But, as the police presence dissipated, not everyone was optimistic. Some Pico-Union residents were uneasy with the quiet, warily awaiting the dealers' return.
On Friday, a Vietnamese woman took a break from sweeping the sidewalk near the security gate that surrounded her home. Like several neighbors, she was too afraid of the drug dealers to give her name to a reporter.
She likened the police presence to that of the American soldiers in the Vietnam war.
"They came and they bombed, hoping to scare away the Viet Cong," she said. "But they could not stay forever. As soon as you could no longer hear the noise of their helicopters, the Viet Cong returned.
"Nothing changed. And that's how it will be with the drug dealers."