WILMINGTON — They stand on street corners, cluster in poorly lighted corridors and alleys and occasionally operate out of an apartment or bungalow.
They approach housewives driving to the supermarket, police officers cruising in unmarked cars, and teen-agers walking home from school.
They've mugged a mail carrier, smashed the ribs of a man visiting from out of town, and have even showed up at meetings of frightened residents who want them out of the community.
They are rock dealers--sellers of a highly concentrated, crystallized form of cocaine--and they are slowly wresting control of this harbor-front community from intimidated residents and a beleaguered police force.
'Staking Their Claim'
"People are seeing drug deals going on across the street and next door, and they are asking, 'Why is this happening to me?' "said Abelardo de la Pena Jr., who bought a home in Wilmington in May. "Wilmington has traditionally been a dumping ground for toxic wastes and refineries, and now the drug dealers are staking their claim."
Narcotics arrests in the harbor area during the first five months of this year are up 37% over the same period last year, police said. So-called "repressible crimes"--burglary, robbery and car thefts--which police say are often drug-related, are up 30%--the largest percentage increase in the city of Los Angeles, said Harbor Division Police Capt. Dennis Conte.
Although separate statistics for Wilmington are not available, Conte said the vast majority of the 798 narcotics arrests in the harbor area during the five-month period were made in Wilmington. Similarly, the increase in drug-related crime centered on Wilmington, he said.
Police estimate that, collectively, rock dealers take in $50,000 to $100,000 a night peddling small pellets of the extremely addictive drug in Wilmington, primarily at the Dana Strand Village housing project and on East O Street between Watson and Drumm avenues.
Expected to Get Worse
Police make drug-related arrests daily at the two locations, and with a successful crackdown on rock dealers 12 miles to the north in the city of Inglewood, police fear the problem can only get worse as displaced dealers search for a new haven for their illicit trade.
"We are trying to make do with what we have, but it is a classic case of trying to combat too much with too little," Conte said. "We fully admit and acknowledge that we don't have the personnel resources to supply a constant enforcement, and that is what is really needed."
Police and community leaders say the rock "epidemic," as it is commonly called here, has shaken the foundation of a community that long ago grew accustomed to adversity and hard times. Unlike other battles against industries spewing chemicals into the air or spilling wastes in the streets, residents fighting rock dealers face a fragmented enemy that ranges from rich customers on the Palos Verdes Peninsula to suppliers in Long Beach to the teen-age dealer in the apartment next door.
"The problem is enormous, and it has become very explicit and overt," said Peter Mendoza, president of the Wilmington Home Owners, a group that formed last year to tackle a growing inventory of community problems. "The deals are now going down right in front of everybody. We want our community back. We aren't going to let them take it away from us."
Finding a way to regain control of the community, however, has eluded residents and police alike. The Los Angeles Unified School District has begun a free summer education and job-training program for residents of harbor-area housing projects, largely in response to the increasing crime rate among youth in the area, and numerous agencies offer counseling programs for drug addicts.
But as long as the demand for rock exists, police say dealers--many of whom live outside of Wilmington--will continue to inundate the community with the drug. According to police, the rock cocaine crisis in Wilmington is one that is being repeated in other communities nationwide.
National Cocaine Hotline officials estimate the drug, which first hit the streets about five years ago in South-Central Los Angeles, is widely used in 17 cities. About 5,000 people a day try rock cocaine, half of whom become addicted, hot-line officials said.
"Money is what it is all about," said police Officer Phil Gasca, who lives in Wilmington and patrols the drug-infested areas of the community. "They are making big money . . . and they feel nobody is standing up to them."
Police Ask for Help
Police have asked residents who witness drug deals to jot down license plate numbers, descriptions of dealers and "stash" locations--places where dealers hide the cocaine when police arrive. In an effort to concentrate their enforcement on major offenders, police have advised residents not to waste time giving information on buyers, most of whom also come from outside the community.