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L.A. razes gang stronghold

The two-bedroom stucco house at 3304 Drew St. in Glassell Park was once the center of one of the most menacing drug marketplaces in Los Angeles.

From the house, Maria “Chata” Leon, an illegal immigrant, her family and associates controlled drug and gang activity on the street for years, police said.

During at least two raids at the house, according to court documents, officers found guns and drugs as well as surveillance cameras, laser trip wires and a shrine to Jesus Malverde, a Mexican folk hero whom drug traffickers have made their patron saint.

Known as the Satellite House, for the enormous black satellite dish that once stood in the driveway, the home “was a terrifying monument to the power of the Avenues gang” that dominated the two blocks of Drew Street, said City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo.

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But all that was history Wednesday morning.

As police and city officials looked on, a Caterpillar excavator took a bite out of the roof, then ate its way through the rest of the structure, and a half-hour later the Satellite House was rubble.

In 2007, Delgadillo’s office -- using its TOUGH program to go after houses used as gang hangouts -- won a lawsuit to close the house as a public nuisance.

When the owners -- who city officials allege are straw men covering for Leon and her family -- didn’t make repairs, the city’s Building and Safety Commission approved plans to demolish it.

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Eusterbio Renteria watched the destruction of the house that he said was the source of much family pain. “They should have done this 10 years ago,” said Renteria, who has lived on Drew Street since 1972 and watched two of his sons join the gang, using the house as a hangout.

His son Carlos is in prison. According to a law enforcement report, he was heard on a surveillance tape requesting that a friend send him a photo of the Satellite House because he wanted to tattoo it on his body.

A few yards away, Los Angeles Police Officer Steve Aguilar also watched the demolition.

“It feels good,” said Aguilar, who patrolled Drew Street for five of its worst years and recently became a detective in another part of the city. “It’s been a long time in the making.”

The 12-square-block enclave around Drew Street was among the city’s most dangerous for years, police said.

Hooded gang members lurked behind parked cars and on apartment balconies, police and residents said. At night, tires squealed and gunshots echoed while neighbors huddled in their homes.

Some years, the street accounted for up to 20% of the violent crime in the 30-square-mile Northeast Division, police said.

For such a small area, Drew Street absorbed more than its share of city resources.

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Police used special task forces, undercover drug operations and constant patrols to attack the gang problem. Drew Street’s graffiti-scarred trees were regularly trimmed to give cops better visibility. Graffiti removers visited daily, to negligible effect. Street lights were covered with bulletproof glass.

Still, a stubborn culture of criminality reigned, largely because of a web of families from Tlalchapa, Guerrero, in the Tierra Caliente, a region of Mexico known for its violence. Police estimate that members of dozens of these extended families belonged to the Avenues gang and had built a network that proved hard to dismantle.

The neighborhood drew wider attention after a wild shootout between police and gang members last February.

The incident started when a car full of Drew Street gangsters allegedly shot and killed a former Cypress Park gang member outside an elementary school. Police later spotted the car on Drew Street. Maria Leon’s son, Daniel, fired an assault rifle at the officers, who fatally shot him. Two others were arrested and charged with murder.

Since then, police and other law enforcement agencies have focused intensely on Drew Street.

In April, Maria Leon was arrested by federal agents and charged with illegally re-entering the country. The mother of 13 had previously been convicted of felony drug, firearms and child endangerment charges in three separate cases dating back to 1992.

In June, hundreds of heavily armed police and federal agents stormed into the neighborhood and arrested 28 people in an attempt to root out the Avenues gang members who had ruled the area with near-impunity.

A sweeping indictment named 70 defendants -- mostly connected to the Drew Street clique of the larger Avenues gang. Of those named, 26 were already in custody.

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In December, suspected members of the Drew Street clique, Guillermo Hernandez, 20, and Carlos “Stony” Velasquez, 24, Leon’s nephew, were arrested and charged with the Aug. 2 killing of Juan Abel Escalante, a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy who lived in Cypress Park.

Residents and police say things have calmed down considerably on Drew Street.

But neighbors are still afraid to talk openly for fear of retaliation.

“It’s notable how it all got better,” one resident said. “You don’t see the guys in the street. There’s no races, no noise at night. That anxiety, that desperate feeling of wanting to leave -- it’s gone.”

Violent crime -- which includes homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault -- has dropped significantly in recent years, according to LAPD statistics. On Drew Street and the immediate surrounding neighborhood, the number of violent incidents has fallen from 98 in 2000 to 26 last year.

Recently, police solved a robbery of a nearby store largely based on information collected from residents. “That wouldn’t have occurred a year or two years ago,” said Capt. Bill Murphy of the Northeast Division.

Teachers at nearby Fletcher Drive Elementary School find their students better rested now that gunshots and police helicopters don’t wake them at night, said Maria Manzur, the school’s principal.

“There’s a more calming effect throughout the school,” she said.

On Wednesday, police and city officials were eager to cast the drop in neighborhood crime and the demolition of the Satellite House as a sort of Drew Street victory.

But some residents fear that the gang culture hasn’t been entirely uprooted in a neighborhood crowded with apartments and poor people.

They also fear that police will eventually be drawn elsewhere.

But Police Chief William J. Bratton tried to allay those fears Wednesday. His department is hiring 1,000 new officers, he said, and many are expected to be placed in highly stressed neighborhoods such as Drew Street.

“We have never left,” he said. “We’re here to stay.”

sam.quinones@latimes.com


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