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Cornering the Market : Drugs, IDs, Sex Sold Openly in Lot at Bristol and McFadden


SANTA ANA — Three teenagers, sporting wraparound sunglasses that mask their faces beneath an overcast sky, sit impatiently in a white Volkswagen Jetta parked in front of the taqueria.

They have a craving, but it's not for tacos.

A group of young men standing on the sidewalk nearby casts a stealthy glance at the teens. Moments later, one of them, clad in baggy shorts and leather sandals, saunters over to the Volkswagen to take an order, of sorts.

He ignores a police car cruising by and seems undaunted by the presence of a police substation just a block away.

"Those kids are regulars here," says Arturo, who says he is one of several drug dealers working the parking lot. "Sometimes they come in different cars. They mostly buy cocaine, but once in a while they'll also buy a little mota [marijuana]."

Soon, the man in the baggy shorts finishes his brief business at the Volkswagen and makes a beeline for the telephones outside the market. The teenagers drive off.

"He's calling in their order now," explains Arturo, who spoke only on the condition that his full name not be used.

Ten minutes later, a courier delivers a plastic bag of coke, good for a few lines and a midday buzz, and the Volkswagen with a No Fear decal and custom wheels reappears. Money and drugs, wrapped inside a folded newspaper, are quickly exchanged and seller and buyers go their separate ways.

This is a drug deal in plain sight, part of a high-volume, subterranean economy that flourishes at a strip mall at the southwest corner of Bristol Street and McFadden Avenue in one of the worst crime areas in the city. Here just about anything--drugs, fake ID cards, even sex--can be purchased. On any given day, amid the bustle of legitimate shoppers going to and from the mall's 44 stores, drug dealers, pimps and others scurry through the parking lot to conduct business virtually unnoticed, police acknowledge.

Located one block from Mater Dei High School and about a mile from the Civic Center, the shopping center, built in the late 1950s, has changed over the years, along with most of the neighborhoods surrounding it. During the 1960s, most of the mall's customers were white. Me-N-Ed's Pizza Parlor used to be a hangout for surfer kids.

The pizza parlor is still there, surrounded by stores that sell clothing, electronics, ice cream, bridal gowns and other merchandise. A dentist's office is tucked away in a corner of the mall and offices in the second level offer a variety of services to immigrants, from legal assistance to helping them register their cars with the Department of Motor Vehicles.

In the 1970s and 1980s, when white residents began leaving the area, many merchants changed direction to meet the shopping needs of the Latino, African American and Vietnamese residents who moved in. Now, customers are overwhelmingly Latino, and the window advertisements in nearly all of the stores are in Spanish. During the day, a giant-screen television at Me-N-Ed's is tuned to Spanish-language soap operas.

The area has evolved like other urban communities across Southern California whose demographics changed beginning in the 1970s, when mainstay industries, such as aerospace, began to disappear and inner-city neighborhoods were hit by economic hard times.

The merchants are unwilling to report illegal activity for fear of retaliation, so they try to coexist with the illicit trade, police say.

If the drug dealers are concerned about police, they do not show it. They know the Santa Ana Police Department's neighborhood substation is one block south of the shopping center, but only shrug when told of plans to close it in December for budgetary reasons. The substation costs $50,000 a year to operate and is used by 51 officers in staggered daily shifts, according to the department.

"They never bother us," a dealer contends.

The substation's commander, Lt. Mike Foote, calls the strip mall "one of the major problem areas in the city," and contrary to the dealer's claim, Foote says officers made more than 200 arrests there in 1995 for drug trafficking and other offenses.

But there is only so much that police can do about the crime at this busy shopping center, adds Foote. After all, he explains, the overall scene looks so normal, it's hard to pick out dealers and their customers from the throngs of innocent shoppers.

Store owners say enforcement action is usually taken only after police investigate reports of violent crime at the shopping center, or when police assist Immigration and Naturalization Service investigators cracking down on the sale of forged immigration documents.

Whatever the level of enforcement has been, it has hardly slowed the illegal, full-service enterprise here.

"What can you buy here?" a visitor asks Arturo.

"What do you want, and how much do you want?" he replies. "Drugs and a mica [immigration card] can be gotten in a few minutes. If you want a car, you'll have to wait a day or two, depending on which model you want."

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