Outside the law
L.A.'s once-peaceful Drew Street has become a crime fortress, where family bonds thwart police efforts to stop the violence.
y Sam Quinones
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
March 30, 2008
The brick house with the enormous black satellite dish in the driveway sits empty now, the tenants evicted. The building is fenced, its windows are boarded and a For Sale sign hangs outside.
Last year, the Los Angeles city attorney's office sued to close the house at 3304 Drew St. in Glassell Park as a public nuisance. Authorities are now seeking to demolish it.
For more than a decade, the Satellite House, as it's known in the neighborhood, was the center of the drug trade on two-block Drew Street, where dealers and gang members have operated with near-impunity for years, police said.
During at least two raids at the house since 2002, according to court documents, officers found guns and drugs as well as surveillance cameras, laser trip wires and a shrine to Jesus Malverde, the Mexican folk hero who has become drug smugglers' unofficial patron saint.
Occupying the house until recently was Maria "Chata" Leon and her family.
An illegal immigrant and mother of 13, Leon has a lengthy arrest record and three convictions for drug-related crimes -- for which she's served no prison time, according to court documents. She declined to be interviewed for this story.
Police said Leon, 44, and her extended family were deeply involved in the drug trade that has made Drew Street among L.A.'s most notorious.
The neighborhood came to the attention of most people only after undercover police officers got into a shootout there last month with gang members who had allegedly killed a man in another Northeast Los Angeles neighborhood. But police had long had Drew Street on their radar.
It is "hands down the worst area of Northeast Division," said LAPD Officer Steve Aguilar, who has patrolled the street for five years. "I've worked two other divisions and even in South-Central. This is worse."
The Leons -- and members of several other immigrant families on Drew Street whom authorities have charged with criminal acts -- hail from the town of Tlalchapa in the state of Guerrero, which has a reputation as one of Mexico's most violent regions. Police estimate that dozens of members of these extended families belong to the Avenues gang.
"It's been a safety net for them to rely on each other -- brothers, cousins and all," said LAPD Lt. Robert Lopez. "The likelihood of someone within your family ratting you out is really low."
Drew Street's Tlalchapa contingent began arriving in the 1970s, some lured by the promise of jobs at the Van de Kamp canned-food factory a few blocks away, residents and former factory workers said.
"We created a little Guerrero up there," said Robesbier Aguirre, who worked as foreman at the now-shuttered plant. Aguirre and others said his family was not part of the criminal activity on Drew Street and left when it got bad.
Poverty sent many Tlalchapans to the U.S. looking for work. But so did the violence stemming from the local drug trade and deadly family feuds, authorities and former residents said.
One place people from Tlalchapa landed was Drew Street. The early arrivals lived mostly in peace, said Epifanio Serrato, Tlalchapa's mayor, who met his wife on Drew Street when he lived there in the early 1970s before returning to Mexico.
"The first of us there had no problems," Serrato said. But as their numbers grew, the area's white residents began selling to developers, he said.
The number of apartment buildings doubled. City records show that from 1984 to 1992, builders razed 30 single-family houses and erected apartment complexes in their place, adding 480 units to the 12-square-block neighborhood -- between the Glendale Freeway and Forest Lawn Memorial-Park -- that includes Drew Street.
Living conditions began to resemble those of many public housing projects, particularly on Drew Street, where the concentration of apartments was the greatest. Poor people crowded into the long, tall buildings, which were hard for police to patrol and easy for criminals to hide in. Parked cars packed the streets, providing gang members a line of armored defense.
Tlalchapans moved into many of the new apartments, said former Drew Street residents. As they did, neighbors said, fights, parties and heavy drinking became more common. Minor disputes escalated into gunplay.
"There wasn't a weekend you didn't hear gunshots in the air," said one neighbor, who bought a house on the block more than 20 years ago.
By the early 1990s, some immigrant families who initially came to escape violence in Guerrero began to leave.
"People with aspirations didn't want to be there," said one former resident.
Another resident who left was Aguirre's brother Flocelo, also a onetime foreman at the Van de Kamp factory, who feared that his sons would end up dead or in jail. He moved his family to Dalton, Ga., where carpet factories have attracted Tlalchapans from Drew Street.
As more Tlalchapans arrived on Drew Street, "it was the law of the revolver," Flocelo Aguirre said. "By 1990, you couldn't live there anymore."
A string of arrests
Still, many Tlalchapans stayed. One of them, police said, was Maria Leon. She was 21 and destitute when she showed up in 1985, according to those who knew her.
By then the Van de Kamp factory was slowly shutting down, so Leon took menial work elsewhere, residents said. Later, she told a judge that she sold gold jewelry door-to-door.
She was arrested at least 14 times dating to 1985, according to court records. But she never seemed to spend much time in jail.
In 1992 Leon was arrested twice on Drew Street on suspicion of possession of drugs for sale, including PCP and marijuana, according to police records. She was not charged.
In 1994, Leon was arrested for narcotics possession, police records show. She was given diversion and the case was dismissed. The next year, she was sentenced to jail and probation for selling drugs.
Over the years, Leon had 13 children with five men, according to court records. Several of her sons are documented gang members, according to police. One of Leon's sons, Daniel, was killed last month in the shootout on Drew Street after allegedly firing an AK-47 at officers.
The family ties on Drew Street, along with the poverty and overcrowding, have made it hard for police to penetrate, authorities said. Police report having seen lookouts standing atop apartment buildings, watching for cops or rival gang members, ready to whistle or chirp their Nextels in warning.
In one 2002 raid at the Leon house, Glendale police arrested Maria Leon and found cocaine, marijuana, a Tec-9 assault weapon, ammunition, a small explosive, packaging material and a cellphone that kept ringing with customers' drug orders, according to court records. Inside were six children under 10 years old, including Maria Leon's youngest child, a 3-month-old boy.
An older son, Jose Leon, pleaded guilty to possession of drugs for sale in connection with the case and was sentenced to four years in prison.
Maria Leon pleaded guilty to child endangerment and possession of an assault weapon and was sentenced to six years and eight months for child endangerment. She was given credit for 259 days served and turned over to federal immigration authorities in May 2003. She was deemed a "deportable alien," but it's unclear if she was deported. A spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined to comment on her case, citing privacy laws.
One of Leon's sons, Francisco Real, was convicted in 2002 of immigrant smuggling, according to court records. Three other convicted drug dealers with close ties to the Leons also have been arrested on suspicion of immigrant smuggling, authorities said.
Trying to make a dent
Police task forces, gang sweeps, arrests -- even a 2002 gang injunction -- have done little to break the bonds of family and culture that breed criminal activity on Drew Street, officials said.
"We've really put a lot of focus on trying to build a community there," said Councilman Eric Garcetti, whose district includes the street.
But Drew Street renters come and go. Landlords say they often can't find reputable tenants to fill their units.
The city said that "I'm not supposed to have gangs out in the yard" in front of the apartment building, according to one landlord who requested anonymity, fearing reprisal. "I'm the one who is supposed to go and chase them out? I don't think so."
Finding a witness to testify is almost impossible, police said. So gang members are rarely charged with violent felonies. Without witnesses, police must rely on cases they can make themselves, usually for narcotics possession.
Other government efforts to crack down on criminal activity on Drew Street have been frustrated.
In 2002, the city built Juntos Park on the street; the park, which cost $6 million, has since become another spot for drug dealing, neighbors said.
Last year, the city installed surveillance cameras without bulletproof glass. Gang members shot them out the first night.
"Now we have to put in cameras to monitor the installation of cameras," Garcetti said.
Prisoners in their homes
Drew Street today remains a drug marketplace, police said. But there have been some changes over the years.
In 1998, the city down-zoned the area to prevent more apartment construction. A Neighborhood Watch group recently formed, though it meets in secret.
Maria Leon and her family have moved to a two-story house in a new subdivision in Victorville. But police believe the family remains a force in the street's drug trade.
In Tlalchapa, 2,000 miles away, Drew Street is so notorious that it's called el barrio bajo -- "the low neighborhood."
Nearby, some homeowners said they feel imprisoned in tidy, graffiti-free homes they've tried unsuccessfully to sell.
"We don't let the kids play in the front," said one resident, who did not want to be identified. "The drug dealers are so common they're part of the scenery. We need something permanent done. We're barely surviving here."