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Outside the law

L.A.'s once-peaceful Drew Street is a crime fortress, where police say family bonds thwart efforts to stop the violence.

March 30, 2008|Sam Quinones | Times Staff Writer

The brick house with the enormous black satellite dish in the driveway sits empty now, the tenants evicted. The building is fenced, its windows are boarded and a For Sale sign hangs outside.

Last year, the Los Angeles city attorney's office sued to close the house at 3304 Drew St. in Glassell Park as a public nuisance. Authorities are now seeking to demolish it.

For more than a decade, the Satellite House, as it's known in the neighborhood, was the center of the drug trade on two-block Drew Street, where dealers and gang members have operated with near-impunity for years, police said.

During at least two raids at the house since 2002, according to court documents, officers found guns and drugs as well as surveillance cameras, laser trip wires and a shrine to Jesus Malverde, the Mexican folk hero who has become drug smugglers' unofficial patron saint.

Occupying the house until recently was Maria "Chata" Leon and her family.

An illegal immigrant and mother of 13, Leon has a lengthy arrest record and three convictions for drug-related crimes -- for which she's served no prison time, according to court documents. She declined to be interviewed for this story.

Police said Leon, 44, and her extended family were deeply involved in the drug trade that has made Drew Street among L.A.'s most notorious.

The neighborhood came to the attention of most people only after undercover police officers got into a shootout there last month with gang members who had allegedly killed a man in another Northeast Los Angeles neighborhood. But police had long had Drew Street on their radar.

It is "hands down the worst area of Northeast Division," said LAPD Officer Steve Aguilar, who has patrolled the street for five years. "I've worked two other divisions and even in South-Central. This is worse."

The Leons -- and members of several other immigrant families on Drew Street whom authorities have charged with criminal acts -- hail from the town of Tlalchapa in the state of Guerrero, which has a reputation as one of Mexico's most violent regions. Police estimate that dozens of members of these extended families belong to the Avenues gang.

"It's been a safety net for them to rely on each other -- brothers, cousins and all," said LAPD Lt. Robert Lopez. "The likelihood of someone within your family ratting you out is really low."

Drew Street's Tlalchapa contingent began arriving in the 1970s, some lured by the promise of jobs at the Van de Kamp canned-food factory a few blocks away, residents and former factory workers said.

"We created a little Guerrero up there," said Robesbier Aguirre, who worked as foreman at the now-shuttered plant. Aguirre and others said his family was not part of the criminal activity on Drew Street and left when it got bad.

Poverty sent many Tlalchapans to the U.S. looking for work. But so did the violence stemming from the local drug trade and deadly family feuds, authorities and former residents said.

One place people from Tlalchapa landed was Drew Street. The early arrivals lived mostly in peace, said Epifanio Serrato, Tlalchapa's mayor, who met his wife on Drew Street when he lived there in the early 1970s before returning to Mexico.

"The first of us there had no problems," Serrato said. But as their numbers grew, the area's white residents began selling to developers, he said.

The number of apartment buildings doubled. City records show that from 1984 to 1992, builders razed 30 single-family houses and erected apartment complexes in their place, adding 480 units to the 12-square-block neighborhood -- between the Glendale Freeway and Forest Lawn Memorial-Park -- that includes Drew Street.

Living conditions began to resemble those of many public housing projects, particularly on Drew Street, where the concentration of apartments was the greatest. Poor people crowded into the long, tall buildings, which were hard for police to patrol and easy for criminals to hide in. Parked cars packed the streets, providing gang members a line of armored defense.

Tlalchapans moved into many of the new apartments, said former Drew Street residents. As they did, neighbors said, fights, parties and heavy drinking became more common. Minor disputes escalated into gunplay.

"There wasn't a weekend you didn't hear gunshots in the air," said one neighbor, who bought a house on the block more than 20 years ago.

By the early 1990s, some immigrant families who initially came to escape violence in Guerrero began to leave.

"People with aspirations didn't want to be there," said one former resident.

Another resident who left was Aguirre's brother Flocelo, also a onetime foreman at the Van de Kamp factory, who feared that his sons would end up dead or in jail. He moved his family to Dalton, Ga., where carpet factories have attracted Tlalchapans from Drew Street.

As more Tlalchapans arrived on Drew Street, "it was the law of the revolver," Flocelo Aguirre said. "By 1990, you couldn't live there anymore."

A string of arrests

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