CANOGA PARK — Almost every day, groups of young men hang out at the Glen Square Shopping Center. Some drink beer. Some sell fake documents and drugs at the strip mall at Sherman Way and Variel Avenue.
They often gather in the laundermat, where there is no supervisor. There they gamble, make deals and sometimes hide merchandise in the machines or garbage bins. They threaten tenants of the shopping center who ask them to take their business elsewhere.
The dealers have done more than harass tenants and scare away customers. They and their buyers have converted the shopping center into a popular place for buying fake green cards, Social Security cards, driver's licenses and drugs in the West Valley, said Los Angeles Police Senior Lead Officer Enrique Gutierrez. The dealers usually deliver drugs or documents just hours or days after striking the deals, he said.
Since it's a tough place for uniformed police to be effective, extensive undercover work is required, Gutierrez said.
"The whole neighborhood is terrible," said Mario Sherman, who has managed Glen Square for 15 years. The strip mall is owned by Shulamit Levintal, who lives in Israel, and is managed by Sherman and his wife, Raquel, from an office in Los Angeles.
Sherman said he knows drugs and fraudulent documents are sold at the mall. He said police response has been slow.
"We're desperate. We need help," he tells police when he calls them.
On Thursday, after a months-long investigation prompted by the LAPD and resident complaints, INS agents arrested four alleged counterfeit document vendors at Glen Square, said Rico Cabrera, a spokesman for the INS Los Angeles district office.
"It's been a bad intersection for at least 35 years," where fake documents have long been sold, said Virginia Huber, a Winnetka resident who belongs to the West Valley Community Police Advisory Board. Four years ago, Huber and community activists persuaded authorities to crack down on illegal used-car sales, public drinking and urination in the parking lot of Independence Square, a larger shopping center on Sherman Way next to Glen Square.
The larger mall is safer now, but when police turn up the heat at Glen Square, dealers still dash to the neighboring shopping center, residents said.
"I don't go [to Glen Square] at all [anymore]," said Sandy Dubin, an apartment manager who has lived 25 years in Canoga Park. "It's bad enough driving by it. It's not maintained; it's not cleaned."
But other area residents have fewer alternatives. Many are low-income Latinos who need to buy medicine at the strip mall pharmacy. Often, their apartment buildings lack sufficient laundry facilities and they have to use the strip mall's coin laundry.
One woman who lives nearby said dealers have offered to sell her fake green cards and Social Security cards, which she overheard being sold for about $80 as she did her laundry. "It's scary. [Dealers] fight. They've injured each other," said the 47-year-old woman, who asked that her name not be used for fear of reprisal.
She is most concerned, she said, for her 10- and 11-year-old sons, who sometimes accompany her to the laundermat. "It worries me that they're seeing what they're seeing," she added. "A lot of people are afraid to speak up."
It's an area where gang-related violence erupts. On June 30, 18-year-old Edwin Rodriguez was fatally shot, possibly by gang members, as he talked to friends outside an apartment complex on the corner of Variel Avenue and Wyandotte Street, about a block from Glen Square.
Police say they are doing their best at the shopping center, where there is also gang intimidation, said Cpt. Donald Floyd of the LAPD West Valley Division. Since April 1999, police have targeted the area with gang details and narcotics, bicycle and patrol officers, he said.
DMV agents also are investigating the location, officials said, and police suspect that dealers are using the shopping center's several public pay phones for long-distance calling-card fraud.
But LAPD arrests in the past have been few, according to records. From January 1998 to June 2000, in the strip-mall area there were 21 arrests, including several for possession of narcotics or fraudulent documents.
Just blocks away in neighboring Winnetka, several city agencies have targeted a 10-block area to reduce crime and blight as part of a Citywide Nuisance Abatement Program. As part of the neighborhood project, which started in January, officials have cracked down on drug dealers and helped building owners evict tenants involved in crime.
During such ongoing neighborhood projects, officials sometimes target specific problem areas nearby, and Floyd said he hopes the city will put more resources around Glen Square.
"It would thrill me to death if I could convince them to work at that location," Floyd said. "Anywhere along that corridor, especially along Variel, would be very helpful."
City Councilwoman Laura Chick, who represents the area, said she also supports expanding the Winnetka project to include the strip mall. Plans have been discussed to target an area bounded by Saticoy Street on the north, Bassett Street on the south, Deering Avenue on the west and De Soto Avenue on the east, officials said.
"It's a good teamwork approach and we still have more work to do," she said. "We want people [who are] breaking the law to get tired of breaking it here."