A Small Corner of La Puente Becomes Drug War’s New Front
Nowhere in the San Gabriel Valley is the war on drugs being waged more fiercely than in the four square blocks that form the southeast corner of La Puente. Since May 1, Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies, in an unusual partnership with agents from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, have been saturating the predominantly Latino neighborhood in an effort to quash one of the valley’s busiest cocaine markets.
Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, officers have been sweeping the streets around Valley Boulevard and Laura Avenue, where low-rent apartment buildings surround a modest shopping mall, home to a carniceria, a Spanish-language record store and a coffee shop promising “Best Breakfast in Town.”
Patrolling by foot, on horseback, with police dogs and in black-and-white cars, deputies say they will continue what has been dubbed “Operation Neighborhood Pride” as long as necessary. In its first week, 34 people were arrested, 45 undocumented immigrants were deported and dozens of other people deemed suspicious were stopped by officers and questioned about their activities or citizenship.
“People ask me what’s going on there and I tell them that it’s like a little military operation,” said City Councilman Edward Chavez, who joined his colleagues last month in awarding $85,000 to the Sheriff’s Department to help fund the operation. “We’ve almost had to declare martial law in the area.”
The response from residents, nearly 400 of whom marched in a show of support with police on the first night of the crackdown, has been largely jubilant.
“This was like drug city,” said Artie Garcia, principal of Hurley Elementary School, which sits smack in the middle of the targeted area. “Now the children can walk on the streets and play outside. It’s changed completely.”
But in recent days, some immigrants have complained that they have been interrogated about their citizenship despite having been granted legal status years ago. Other residents, even those born in La Puente, said they have been detained by police for no apparent reason other than their appearance.
“I know they’re just doing their job,” said Eddie Gonzalez, a 32-year-old machine operator who last week was frisked and forced to sit on the curb for several minutes while officers searched his car. “But I was just here to pick up my kids from the baby-sitter. It seems like anybody they see, especially Mexicans, they stop them. You can’t even walk around here no more.”
Sheriff’s Capt. Bill Stonich of the Industry substation, which is under contract to provide police services to La Puente, said that from the beginning of the crackdown his deputies have tried to be sensitive to residents and workers who have legitimate business in the neighborhood.
But Stonich said the vast majority of drug-dealing in the area is being conducted by undocumented immigrants, many of whom are suspected of riding freight trains up from the San Diego area and hopping off where the tracks hit La Puente.
“I’m sure there are those who may have been offended and I regret that,” Stonich said. “But our mind-set has not been one of ‘search-and-destroy.’ I think we have been extremely sensitive about not violating individual citizens’ rights.”
Under the guidelines of the operation--one of only a handful in which the Sheriff’s Department has ever teamed up with the INS--officers are instructed to focus their efforts only on people believed to be involved in drug-related activity.
If it turns out that the suspect is also in the country illegally, he will be referred to the INS agents at the scene and could face deportation after his criminal case is concluded. If officers do not have enough evidence to make an arrest, but believe an alien may be involved in criminal activity, they will still detain him and refer the suspect to INS agents for questioning.
“If we have information that illegal aliens are involved in narcotics activity, we are ready and willing to assist,” said INS District Director Robert M. Moschorak.
Some immigrant rights groups have attacked similar operations, contending that they are based on stereotypical profiles that assume all Latinos may be drug dealers or illegal aliens.
“You have a scenario that’s replete with constitutional violations,” said Francisco Garcia, national director of the immigrant rights program for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “Just to pick up people who are illegal because they may be drug dealers--that’s outrageous.”
But sheriff’s deputies say the situation in La Puente is so unique--rarely do undocumented immigrants form the majority of people arrested for dealing drugs in any given area--that they determined the use of immigration agents was appropriate.
“I think we’ve made it quite clear that we are not out looking for people who happen to be illegal aliens--we’re looking for people committing crimes,” said Assistant Sheriff Jerry Harper, who oversees patrol stations and detectives for the department. “Based on the reaction we have had from people in the community, I don’t think there is one iota of confusion in their minds as to who we are after.”
This tiny corner of town--bounded by the City of Industry to the south, Valinda to the east and the Industry Hills & Sheraton Resort to the north--was once known as Sky Ranch, named for the crop-dusters that landed nearby after spraying the surrounding walnut orchards.
But in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, developers began subdividing the land and building apartment buildings with more enticing names, such as “Oasis,” “Islander,” “Driftwood” and “Royal Garden.”
Because of its high density, the neighborhood has always had more than its fair share of problems, city officials say. A small shopping plaza, with a liquor store and all-night doughnut shop, soon grew into a hangout for street-wise teen-agers, they say.
It wasn’t until about three years ago, however, that sheriff’s deputies began to notice a growing drug trade. In 1987, they made 198 arrests in the four square blocks bounded by Laura Avenue, Main Street, Azusa Avenue and Valley Boulevard. The next year, that number rose to 562.
In 1989, there were 1,211 arrests in the area--883 of them for sales, possession or being under the influence of narcotics--which probably amounted to more people arrested on drug-related charges than in any other spot of similar size in the San Gabriel Valley, according to estimates by law-enforcement agencies in the region.
“I’ve worked just about every area in Los Angeles County over the last 25 years and I’ve never seen drug sales so blatant,” said Lt. Ray Baytos, one of the 17 sheriff’s deputies assigned to the city. “It was incredible.”
Despite the arrests, the dealers continued to flood the streets, hawking $20 rocks of crack cocaine as if they were sacks of oranges. Gofers for the dealers, little children who couldn’t have been much older than 10 or 11, were coming to Jax Supermarket with $1,000 to $2,000 in $20 bills wanting to exchange them for $100 bills, said store manager Ramon Casas.
As recently as a month ago, officers were busy arresting a suspected dealer and saw another deal going down in plain sight a few dozen yards away.
“It was like kids with a lemonade stand,” said Dianne Rivera, 29, who, with her husband, Mark, manages the Driftwood apartments on Laura Avenue. “There was no attempt at trying to hide anything. A car would go by and (dealers would) be whistling, trying to flag it down.”
With the increased funding from the City Council--which had not substantially increased the sheriff’s $2.3-million budget in nine years--officers were able to set up a command post in the Puente Plaza shopping center along Valley Boulevard.
The $85,000 appropriation increased the number of deputies assigned to the city from 12 to 17, allowing for round-the-clock patrols. And the level of community awareness and cooperation, deputies say, has never been greater.
One afternoon last week, as Baytos stood outside the command post, a man approached him with a folded piece of paper bearing the name and address of somebody he believed was dealing drugs in the neighborhood.
The man, a 28-year-old Central American immigrant with a wife and two children, said he himself had been stopped three times in the last three weeks by deputies who thought he looked suspicious. But that had not deterred him from offering the tip.
“I don’t mind,” he said. “We need this place to be clean.”