Fernando Mosqueda and his family begin each day at sunrise, wrapping tamales, stripping corn, frying chicharrones and chopping fruit at their Wilmington home.
At about 9, Mosqueda, a recent immigrant from Mexico, loads the food into his car and takes it several blocks to a broken-down van he keeps parked outside Holy Family Church on L Street.
There, he sets up shop for the day, selling the tamales and corn from deep metal pots, the chicharrones stuffed in plastic bags, and the mixed fruit in cups filled from a large fish tank covered with a white towel.
"I started coming on Saturday and Sunday only, but I need the money for my family so I come every day," said Mosqueda, who makes about $40 on a good day. "Without this, we can't pay the rent on our home. My mom is now making tamales for this afternoon."
Mosqueda is one of an estimated 120 street vendors who police say illegally peddle food, clothing, flowers and other goods from streets and sidewalks in southern Los Angeles, an area that stretches from the Crenshaw district south to San Pedro.
Today and Friday, about 60 police officers joined by city zoning and county health officials will conduct sweeps throughout the sprawling area, known as the South Bureau of the Los Angeles Police Department. The officials expect to close dozens of vendors, confiscate carloads of goods and issue scores of citations for violations of city and county laws that restrict street sales.
"You have legitimate businesses out there that pay their taxes, get their business licenses and pay all of their fees, and then you have some guys who set up shop on a corner and undercut them," said Tony Celli, a South Bureau police detective involved in the sweep. "We get a lot of complaints from the business community that it is a little unfair."
Police have identified about 20 problem areas where they will concentrate their efforts--including the neighborhood near Holy Family Church where as many as 15 vendors congregate on weekends. Celli said, however, that patrol cars will be roaming streets throughout the four-division bureau.
Harbor Division Patrol Capt. David Gascon said the two-day sweep is meant to warn illegal vendors that police and city officials take the violations seriously.
"With our limited resources, we can't be dispatching officers all of the time to respond to complaints about the vendors," Gascon said. "But we are going to be doing it right this time. We will be citing and arresting people, evidence will be confiscated and photographs taken."
City law prohibits vendors from selling food or merchandise on public streets or sidewalks, and those that sell on private property need a permit from the Department of Building and Safety, according to the City Clerk's office. Vendors who sell food must also receive a certificate from the county Department of Health Services and must meet various state agricultural requirements.
"These people really don't know how to protect the food or prevent food-borne illness," said Tom Barnett, an environmental health services manager for the county health department. "There is an increase in the variety of foods and the style of presentation, and there is a growing concern that it is getting out of hand.
"The public logically assumes that the food is OK, but we say it is not. We don't know that any of it is prepared under the standards that licensed vendors must meet."
Aside from health concerns, police said many of the vendors create serious traffic problems, particularly those who sell from the center divider or near freeway on- and off-ramps. Motorists stopping to purchase flowers or oranges from vendors in congested areas block traffic and sometimes cause accidents, police said.
"They have been known to cause a lot of animosity among drivers trying to proceed through green lights and those stopping to make purchases," Gascon said.
At Holy Family Church, Father Jose Luis Hernandez said the vendors block parking spaces outside the church, cause traffic congestion and contribute to a growing litter problem in the predominantly Latino neighborhood. But with 7,000 people attending services at the church every Sunday, Hernandez acknowledged that the church provides a lucrative market.
'In Mexico, It Is Popular'
"In Mexico at the churches, it is very popular for every vendor to be outside the church, and they are treating this like they are back home," Hernandez said. "They know it is sure money."
Police said they do not expect the two-day crackdown to rid the area of illegal street vendors, but Celli said the department hopes that the sweeps will "put a pretty good dent" in the problem.
Most of the violations are infractions that are punishable by fines--from $25 to $1,000--while others are misdemeanors that could result in short jail terms, police and county officials said. Celli said police will be looking for voluntary compliance from the vendors, and in most cases they will allow the vendors to remove the goods themselves.
But for vendors like Mosqueda, the sweep could mean the end of business.
"I don't know what we will do," he said, wrapping two tamales for a girl who was on her way home from school.