Gilberto Saavedra appeared to know exactly what he wanted when he went shopping for a house.
He chose a tidy, four-bedroom stucco-and-brick home on a quiet street in an ethnically diverse Sylmar neighborhood. The real estate agent who handled the sale two months ago said Saavedra, a 41-year-old Colombian national, selected the house without an agent and came to him for the transaction. He agreed to a $190,000 price with little haggling, and financed it with a bank mortgage.
The neighborhood looked like the ideal spot to raise a family--or, as authorities say, run a money-laundering operation for drug dealers. Police raided the house Tuesday night and seized more than $15 million in what they say is drug-related money--the largest such seizure ever on the West Coast.
The house is about two miles from the warehouse where police and federal agents last year discovered a record stash of cocaine valued at $6 billion. Although the two operations do not appear to be related, authorities suggested Thursday that it is more than coincidence that two of the country's biggest busts were in Sylmar.
"Why Sylmar? That's what we are all asking," said an investigator familiar with both cases.
According to law enforcement officials, Sylmar fits the profile of what foreign-born drug-runners look for in a community where they want to establish businesses, homes or both: it is experiencing fast growth, which means they can move in without attracting much attention; it is multiracial, so foreigners do not stand out, and it is close to freeways, so they can move themselves and their product quickly through Southern California.
And it's convenient, centered in a roughly shaped triangle bounded by the Foothill, Golden State and Simi Valley freeways.
Law enforcement officials, including Cmdr. Chet Spencer of the Los Angeles Police Department's Valley Bureau, said the Sylmar area, with its numerous warehouse parks, quiet residential streets and easy access to freeways, is perfect for drug traffickers looking to set up shop.
"Sylmar is the fastest-growing community in the city," Spencer said. "It's convenient and quiet. It is a key spot for truck transport and access to the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys and points north, Las Vegas, Ventura County, all over."
Said DEA spokesman John Marcello: "You can go anywhere from there."
Similar conditions exist in many Southern California communities, and some authorities were reluctant Thursday to single out Sylmar as unique.
LAPD Deputy Chief Glenn Levant said police uncover drug operations in similar neighborhoods several times a year, but because such operations are smaller, they go unnoticed. Levant said a manual seized in a smuggling operation several years ago describes the ideal neighborhood in which to locate as quiet, respectable and filled with children.
"It could be anywhere," Levant said.
Even so, two of the biggest busts were in Sylmar.
"The big one from last year is known all over the nation in the law enforcement community," Spencer said. "Sylmar stands out as a transport center and a major place where cartels store their drugs."
Capt. Tim McBride of LAPD's Foothill Division, which patrols Sylmar, said the ethnic mix in the community made it easy for Saavedra to blend in. His block has whites, African-Americans, Asians and Latinos.
From the outside, Saavedra's house of red brick and tan stucco suggested a typical middle-class lifestyle. Like most of his neighbors, Saavedra hired a gardener to tend his lawn and flower beds. Saavedra also hired a woman as a maid, who authorities believe was brought in to maintain the appearance that the house was nothing more than an ordinary residence.
McBride suggested that no one remembers much about Saavedra because he was a professional at not being noticed.
"These people are not stupid," McBride said. "They know how to fit in."