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Despite Police Sweep, Drug Dealers Return : Crime: A year ago, 24-hour patrols cleaned up a four-block section of the city. But 297 arrests raise fears of new problems.

May 30, 1991|JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's been a year since sheriff's deputies flooded into a four-square-block section of La Puente in a highly publicized crackdown on one of the most notorious drug-dealing corners in the San Gabriel Valley.

Gone are the 24-hour-a-day sweeps of Valley Boulevard and Laura Avenue, as well as the mounted patrols, police dogs and federal immigration agents--all of which was described by one city councilman as a "little military operation."

In recent months, however, the young men hawking $20 bags of crack cocaine have begun to return to the curbsides, flagging down clients who in the past have come from as far as Diamond Bar and San Marino for their fix, according to deputies.

"It's a cyclical effect," said Lt. David Betkey of the sheriff's Industry station, which is under contract to provide police services to La Puente. "You remove the resources . . . and the problem raises its ugly head again."

By the time "Operation Neighborhood Pride" wound to a close last summer, the mostly Latino neighborhood of low-rent apartment complexes had undergone something a transformation.

Street crime was down, children were out playing on front lawns and business at the Puente Plaza--a modest shopping mall whose parking lot had been used for narcotics transactions--was up again.

Narcotics arrests in the area--bounded by Laura Avenue, Main Street, Azusa Avenue and Valley Boulevard--were down 27% from the year before, from 1,015 to 739.

"We did knock the problem down," Betkey said. "The quality of life was returning to the area."

Buoyed by their success and having already spent an $85,000 grant from the La Puente City Council, deputies gradually returned to their regular patrols.

Now, however, law enforcement officials worry that their victory was only temporary. Since Jan. 1, officers have made 297 narcotics arrests in the four blocks surrounding Valley and Laura.

"As soon as the police go, the dealers come back," said Jorge Merlan, a hairdresser at Alicia's Beauty Salon in the Puente Plaza. "That's the way it works."

Around the corner in front of Jax Supermarket, where children working as gofers for the dealers used to arrive with wads of $20 bills to exchange for $100s, the problem also has resurfaced.

"It's not as bad as it used to be, but it does exist," said manager Jose Gei. "They arrest one guy, and another's going to take his place."

Officers have staged a few undercover sting operations in the neighborhood, with plainclothes deputies arresting dealers who offer them drugs. But sheriff's officials concede that they can only make the problem go away for a while, not solve it.

"Traditional law enforcement ways of solving problems are sometimes weak, at best," Betkey said. "We need the support of the community . . . we need them to be our eyes and ears."

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