Officials with the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control turned their undercover raid on a San Gabriel Valley bar late Friday into an unabashed media event staged to assail proposed cuts by Gov. Pete Wilson.
Unless the proposed 75% reduction in ABC staffing is reversed, the agency's ability to conduct similar busts, investigate complaints and screen liquor license applicants would virtually end, officials warned.
With a caravan of reporters and TV cameras in tow, the ABC agents raided the La Jolla bar and restaurant in El Monte, seizing a modest amount of cocaine and cash.
ABC officials said it will be impossible to continue such efforts with budget cuts, especially because the undercover detail that made the raid covers an area from Bakersfield to the Mexican border.
Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar), who opposes the $5-million reduction, said illegal drinking by teen-agers and incidents involving drunk drivers are likely to increase.
"These are silly budget cuts that make no sense," the lawmaker said.
"We'd hate to the see the work of our special operations unit end," said Carl R. Falletta, acting ABC director for Los Angeles County.
In the last year, ABC undercover agents made more than 900 drug buys, resulting in proceedings to seize liquor licenses from 1,700 people in Southern California. There are 73,000 liquor license holders statewide.
Under the proposed cuts, the ABC in Los Angeles County will lose all but one of its 12 undercover investigators. Overall, the staffing of the five ABC offices in the county will be cut 75%.
Wilson has said that the reductions will save $5 million, but Katz and other critics have noted that the ABC generates revenues of at least $10 million more than its annual budget of $23 million.
In recent weeks, activists and community groups, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, have staged news conferences to decry the proposed cuts.
But Friday's raid was a public-relations bonanza for the ABC.
A large contingent of reporters, including 10 TV crews, descended on a parking lot behind the El Monte Police Department for a briefing on the raid and explanations of why the proposed cutbacks would be detrimental.
Katz, Falletta, El Monte Assistant Police Chief Walter H. Mante and others met with reporters at 4:30 p.m., briefing them on the condition that the location of the raid would remain secret until the operation was over.
Less than 30 minutes later, agents stormed the dingy bar and the caravan of officials and news crews then snaked its way to the 10800 block of East Valley Boulevard--less than a mile from the police station.
There, the bar owner, identified by authorities as Guadalupe Garcia, 45, of West Covina, was blinking into the glare of TV lights as ABC agents showed the results of the raid--three ounces of cocaine with a street value of $13,000, several hundred dollars in cash and three pistols.
Reporters inched closer as ABC undercover agent Ernie Limon described how Garcia, who was arrested on suspicion of selling drugs, sold him the cocaine for $2,000.
Outside, officers noticed a sign hanging in front of the bar--"Taqueria La Jolla--Under New Management."
"Yeah," said one ABC agent, "We own it now."
Times staff writer Vicki Torres contributed to this story.