Falling Apart

Some South Tucsonans see their community cycling back toward violence and economic stagnation

Several months ago, Ricky Hidalgo was standing outside with his young son when a couple of local gang members decided to have some fun. Driving an old Chevy pickup truck tricked out with chrome rims, they peeled out of a nearby alley, guns pointed in the air.

"They came out shooting and unloaded their guns," Hidalgo said. "I grabbed my son and turned my back to the shooters."

The car spun its tires at the end of the next block, then turned and drove slowly back, past his house. "They acted like nothing happened," he said. "I looked at them, and they just mad-dogged me—stared me down."

Hidalgo recalled the event on a recent evening while sitting in his front yard with his mother and two uncles. He's 27, and has lived in the same tidy, one-story brick house on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 33rd Street, in the heart of South Tucson, for much of his life.

Back in the 1990s, when he was a teenager, the neighborhood was even worse than it is now—overrun with crack houses and prostitutes, with drive-by shootings and brawls. Just sitting out on the front porch was unwise.

"You couldn't really come outside like we are right now, have a little barbecue and carne asada, whatever, because guys would just come and mad-dog you, stare at you, like, 'What are you doing out here?'" he said.

About 10 years ago, though, things started to change. Police cleared out the crack houses and drove off the prostitutes. The neighborhood took a turn for the better. Families could enjoy fresh air on a Saturday night.

Now Hidalgo sees those gains slipping away.

"It's getting worse again," he said.

While Hidalgo's neighborhood may be entering a downward spiral, it's not a problem he can take up with Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup, or any other Tucson City Council member. The Tucson Police Department won't be much help, either.

South Tucson is a city within a city, an independently governed town of about 5,700 people embedded in the heart of the southside, just a mile from downtown Tucson. It collects taxes and elects its own mayor and City Council; its public works and sanitation departments fix the potholes and pick up the trash; its fire department puts out the occasional blaze. It even has a court and a judge.

This setup works OK on a day-to-day basis, residents say, but there's one major problem: When it comes to keeping the peace, the South Tucson Police Department is basically on its own. In the heart of the violence-plagued southside, that can be a tall order to fill.

The U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, which provides grants for police agencies to hire additional officers, recently ranked the South Tucson Police Department as the most troubled police department in Arizona, out of the 82 departments that applied for federal assistance in 2008-2009. The program's ratings system measures crime rates and municipal finances.

"It's the highest combination of crime and poor fiscal health that exists out of all the applicants in the state," said Gilbert Moore, a spokesman with the Department of Justice.

Cops in South Tucson are paid far less than their counterparts in the Tucson Police Department. Cops starting out in South Tucson earn around $31,000 per year, while TPD officers just out of the academy earn $45,500. Higher-ranking officers earn even less; a sergeant with TPD can earn between $74,131 and $77,854, while sergeants with South Tucson earn about $40,000 per year. However, the crime South Tucson officers face is no less serious. Just this August, for instance, two men—one armed with an SKS assault rifle—forced their way into a motel room in South Tucson. When an officer arrived on the scene, alone, the armed men drove their sports-utility vehicle straight at him, forcing him to shoot the driver multiple times, seriously injuring him.

"It's high-intensity here, for sure. We recognize it," said South Tucson City Manager Enrique Serna.

To many locals, South Tucson is defined by far more than its crime rates. To Brian Flagg, who has lived there for more than 25 years, the city has a tight-knit sense of community that sets it apart from other low-income areas in the Tucson metro area.

Flagg lives and works at Casa Maria, a low-slung adobe house on East 26th Street that serves food to nearly 1,000 local people in need every day. As head honcho at Casa Maria, Flagg makes all of $10 a week—part of the vow of poverty he took back when he was in his early 20s. Many of those he serves are immigrants from Mexico.

"All in all, I'm positive about living in South Tucson," Flagg said recently, sitting on a tattered couch in the dim suite of rooms where he's lived for 23 years. "To me, it's the closest thing to living on the other side. It's got a whole different atmosphere about it. It's less uptight."

South Tucson can feel like a world apart from much of the rest of Tucson. About 80 percent of the population is Latino, with the remaining fifth divided about evenly between whites and American Indians. (Tucson, by comparison, is 70 percent white.) Mexican heritage runs deep, and for years, the city's signature public event was its annual Norteño Music Festival, a showcase of the accordion-driven popular music of northern Mexico. Spanish is commonly spoken as a first (and sometimes only) language.

South Sixth Avenue, the city's main artery, is not much to see; it's a gritty commercial strip of auto-body shops and used-car lots, bodegas, liquor stores and payday lenders, with a few weed-choked empty lots and vacant storefronts here and there.

South Fourth Avenue, however, is the real heart of South Tucson. Quiet and low-key, it feels almost like a small-town main street, with a south-of-the-border vibe. It's also where to find some of the best Sonoran-style Mexican restaurants in all of Arizona.

As for the residential streets, a few blocks are tree-lined, with historic, well-maintained adobe homes. Others are rundown, with ramshackle buildings and dilapidated houses. Where residential streets intersect with South Sixth Avenue, drug dealers and prostitutes mingle, even at midday.

High crime has been an issue for decades, and South Tucson's rough-and-tumble reputation was already well-established when Flagg moved here in the early 1980s. It didn't bother him much at first—his aim was to lift up the poor, not stomp out crime. But by the time 1997 rolled around, crime was impossible to ignore, even to a latter-day St. Francis with a mellow disposition and a California surfer's drawl.

"It really, really, really looked shitty here," said Flagg, now 54. "You couldn't walk 10 steps up or down South Sixth Avenue without somebody trying to sell you crack or a prostitute propositioning you."

A succession of grisly murders in 1996 and 1997 gave residents a sense of being under siege. An 11-year-old boy was gunned down in a drive-by while celebrating his birthday. A father of young children found a stabbing victim dead in his yard one morning. A young man was shot dead in a convenience-store parking lot on a Sunday afternoon. A torched car was discovered in an empty lot with a bullet-riddled body in the driver's seat.

At the end of 1997, the year the violence peaked, the police tallied the damage: 4 murders. 14 rapes. 180 aggravated assaults. 91 robberies. 225 burglaries. 123 stolen cars. For South Tucson—population 5,753 in 1995—it was the equivalent of one serious crime for every 20 residents.

Out on the streets, Flagg tried to rally locals behind an affordable-housing initiative. But all anyone wanted to talk about was crime. So he and his friends at Casa Maria kicked off a grassroots movement to curb the violence.

"I never wanted to be a crime-fighter in my whole life," Flagg said. "But hell's bells, that's what the people wanted."

Flagg and his allies focused their attention on the South Tucson Police Department. Cops at the small agency, they found, were among the worst-paid in the state, though they worked in what amounted to one of the most dangerous neighborhoods. Perpetually underfunded, the department's image was that of an understaffed, poorly trained, ill-equipped and ineffective force, a place where young cops spent a few years getting experience before jumping ship to better-paying jobs.

The meltdown of 1997 finally upended the status quo. By the end of the year, the grassroots movement started at Casa Maria lit a fire under city and county officials, and in a series of packed church meetings, elected leaders pledged to deliver the resources to curb crime.

A charismatic and experienced new police chief was recruited to lead the force. Cops got raises, and staffing reached its highest levels in years. A federal grant was secured to support community policing. Gang members were pursued and prosecuted with the help of a state task force. Police raided dozens of drug houses, and in some cases, bulldozed them to the ground.

The result was a renaissance in the tiny city. Crime dropped by half in just three years. A new shopping center opened, anchored by a Food City supermarket, bringing in thousands of dollars in new tax revenue. In 1999, President Bill Clinton even dropped by Mexican restaurant Mi Nidito. South Tucson was a "city on the mend" with a "surging" economy, the Tucson Citizen reported in February 2000.

"South Tucson is a model of inner-city redevelopment," then-city manager Rene Gastelum told the paper.

Declaring victory and achieving it are entirely separate things.

In the nearly 10 years since the opening of the shopping center, South Tucson has seen little, if any, business growth. The city budget is back on life support after years of falling revenues. A corruption scandal has darkened the Police Department's reputation. And as crime creeps toward its highest levels in years, the Police Department budget has been pared to the bone.

"This place has gone to hell in a handbasket," said one veteran cop, who requested anonymity because he still serves on the force. "They've squeezed the life out of us. It's terrible."

Sixto Molina, the police chief credited with orchestrating the dramatic drop in crime, left in the summer of 2007, after clashing with city leaders over funding. His replacement oversaw a rapid downsizing of the force. Experienced cops have retired or left for other jobs. Now, some of those who remain fear the department has become dangerously dysfunctional.

"If we have a major incident in South Tucson, we don't have the resources to deal with it," said Sgt. Dan Snyder, a South Tucson cop for 19 years and the president of the police officer's union. "It's systemic failure."

Events over the past year have taken the situation from bad to worse.

In May 2008, armed federal agents swarmed South Tucson's City Hall and Police Department, seizing documents and copying computer files. It was the climax of a months-long investigation of Lt. Richard Garcia, second in command, who confessed to stealing $460,000 from the evidence room and the city's anti-racketeering accounts. Garcia told investigators he had blown the money on gambling sprees, booze and strippers.

As residents reeled from the news, they were hit by another blow: The city was running a deficit of $850,000, in a general-fund budget of less than $5 million. The deficits triggered deep cuts in staffing and services.

To make matters worse, one of South Tucson's top cops now says city management is misappropriating tens of thousands of dollars in state and federal antiracketeering funds, money generated from cash, property and other assets seized during police activity.

It is a charge that South Tucson has faced before. In 1994, an investigation by the state Attorney General's Office found that city officials knowingly diverted anti-racketeering money into the city's general fund and spent it on salaries and basic operating expenses. Legally, the funds must be used to supplement law-enforcement activity.

According to Snyder, they are at it again. As South Tucson's task-force agent for the Drug Enforcement Agency, Snyder directly oversees the department's asset-seizure program.

"The city visualizes this as a slush fund," he said. "All of the money that was supposedly budgeted for the Police Department was redirected for other things."

An examination of the South Tucson budget shows that the city has virtually emptied its anti-racketeering accounts to pay for basic expenses like fuel, vehicle repairs and office supplies. As recently as 2007, the city paid for these items largely out of its general fund. Using the anti-racketeering funds to pay for basic Police Department expenses frees the city to spend general-fund money elsewhere, Snyder said.

"That's not how it's supposed to work," he said.

Ruben Villa, the city's finance director, defended the use of the anti-racketeering money, also known as RICO funds. He explained that South Tucson is now so broke that it can no longer afford to pay for basics such as fuel for patrol cars or vehicle repairs out of the general fund. Under the circumstances, he said, the expenditures are perfectly legal.

"That is why the RICO fund is so important for the operation, because it supplements what we don't have," said Villa. "It allows us to spend money from an allowable source on those items we simply can't afford."

Yet according to Grant Woods, who served as Arizona's attorney general from 1991 to 1999, South Tucson's use of the funds might amount to a violation of state or federal law.

"It's not supposed to be used for the general operating budget of a department," Woods said of the anti-racketeering funds. "You use this in very specific areas, rather than just throw it into the pot."

Given the allegations coming from within the Police Department, an investigation by the Arizona auditor general might be in order, Woods added.

"If that appearance is there, then it's very appropriate for the auditor general to go into an agency like that and do a full-scale audit and produce a report to the state detailing exactly where everything has been spent, and how and why, and what reforms are necessary," he said.

Tom Rankin, deputy county attorney for the Pima County Attorney's Office, oversees South Tucson's anti-racketeering fund expenditures. He said that South Tucson's use of anti-racketeering funds to pay for basic Police Department expenses appeared to fall into a legal gray area. Police Department heads, he said, need to take up the issue with South Tucson's political leaders.

"Forfeiture monies ... are meant to be a supplement to, not a substitute for, the monies that the government authorities ought to be giving the Police Department to do their basic job," Rankin said.

While the city and the Police Department clash over funding, the situation on the streets is deteriorating. In virtually every category but rape and murder, crime has risen sharply. Robberies increased 185 percent from 2003 to 2008. Burglaries in 2008 were double their level in 2002. And aggravated assaults—there were 127 last year—are approaching their highest level in a decade.

As a result, South Tucson's jail bill now averages about $22,000 per month, up 220 percent since 2002. The city owes at least $500,000 to Pima County for prisoner detainment, a debt city leaders have said it won't be able to pay for years.

Police responsiveness has slipped. Carlos Salaz, 65, a newly elected South Tucson City Councilman, has heard complaints from residents that calls to police have simply been ignored. According to one constituent, police failed to respond to a report of shots fired during an argument in a shopping-center parking lot.

"When you have a situation where there's gunfire, and they don't respond ... what the hell?" Salaz said. "Where's the safety at?"

Mayor Jennifer Eckstrom did not return repeated phone calls from the Tucson Weekly.

The city's current state of affairs is a case of history repeating. The city has faced budget crises and allegations of fiscal mismanagement, self-dealing, nepotism, voter fraud, incompetence and corruption over the years. In the 1980s, it nearly disintegrated under the weight of its debts.

The city, however, continually clings to independence—for reasons that perhaps only history can explain.

South Tucson was first incorporated in 1936, but the area's origins go back even further, to a time when it was simply known as Barrio Libre.

Barrio Libre was one of the original barrios, or free neighborhoods, that formed on the outskirts of central Tucson more than 200 years ago. Beyond the reach of military or civil authority, the barrios were rough and lawless. Barrio Libre, the southernmost, was remembered as the rowdiest of them all.

As Tucson grew, it annexed the barrios—all but Barrio Libre, which migrated farther south, always a step beyond the city limits and the reach of the law.

By the 1930s, Tucson had a population of about 35,000 and was entering a period of rapid growth. In 1936, it attempted to annex Barrio Libre—and the move was met with resistance. Fearful of the higher taxes that annexation would bring, a group of property owners south of 22nd Street started a drive to incorporate the dusty barrio as an independent city. Out of 87 ballots cast, 52 chose independence—and Barrio Libre was reborn as South Tucson.

The city of Tucson was not amused. It viewed its rowdy neighbor to the south as an annoyance and an impediment to growth, and tried repeatedly to annex the city over the ensuing years. Finally, in the 1950s, it accomplished what must have seemed like the next best thing: a series of annexations to completely surround South Tucson.

Those annexations created the boundaries of South Tucson that for the most part persist today: 25th Street to the north, the Union Pacific Railroad tracks to the east, 40th Street and Benson Highway to the south, and 12th Avenue to the west. Altogether, it's a little more than one square mile.

The little city prospered at first, as old State Route 89—now South Sixth Avenue—developed into Tucson's original motel row. Dirt roads were paved over, and hundreds of new homes were built. The population swelled to around 6,500.

The completion of Interstate 10 in the mid-1950s halted the golden age. Visitors steered to the north and south, destroying the tourist economy. Restaurants and shops closed, and seedy bars and hot-sheet motels took their place. As the decades passed, the area became known as open-air market for drugs and prostitutes. Its lawless history was kept alive by Barrio Libre South Tucson, a powerful street gang with origins in the 1920s.

As the 1980s came to a close, the city finally seemed to turn a corner. It had a powerful new ally in Pima County Supervisor Dan Eckstrom, a South Tucson native son, former mayor and longtime City Council member who helped steer county, state and federal dollars to the city. Millions were spent on a new library, street improvements and municipal facilities.

By the summer of 1993, though, South Tucson was back on the rocks. In a space of five months, the chief of police and city manager were both fired. That winter, the city announced it had underestimated its budget deficit by nearly $500,000. To conserve money, police services were slashed.

In July 1994, South Tucson officials were cleared of criminal charges in an investigation of the city's use of anti-racketeering dollars. Investigators slammed the city, however, for knowingly misusing the funds by steering them away from the Police Department and into the city's coffers.

A month later, four top officers resigned, including acting police chief Richard Vidaurri. "I'm tired of our predicament," Vidaurri told a reporter from the Arizona Daily Star. "It's very frustrating to me when I can't provide for the officers in the field because of no funding."

To hear some cops tell it, the same thing is happening all over again.

South Tucson is falling apart," said Armando Teyechea, a sergeant who retired last May after 12 years on the force.

Staffing has dropped to just 16 commissioned officers, down from 27 in 2004, and 29 a few years earlier. But the city continues to struggle. In January, pay for all city employees, including police officers, was slashed. For some veteran cops, who already earn far less than their peers in the Tucson Police Department, the cuts amounted to more than $10,000 apiece. Picking up some of the slack are a half-dozen reserve officers, who are paid $15 per hour and receive no health coverage, life insurance or other benefits.

The revelation last summer that former second-in-command Garcia had embezzled nearly a half-million dollars from the department further demoralized the force. Garcia, a 13-year veteran, was sentenced to three years in federal prison for the thefts this April.

Chief Sharon Hayes-Martinez, who took over after the departure of Sixto Molina in late 2007, repeatedly declined to answer questions sent by e-mail from the Tucson Weekly concerning her leadership or her role in the Garcia scandal. However, in a 2008 interview with the Tucson Citizen, she denied any knowledge of Garcia's gambling and alcohol problems during the time she acted as his direct supervisor.

Serna, who appointed Hayes-Martinez chief in 2007, defended her performance as Garcia's supervisor during the time of his thefts. "There wasn't any reason to believe that things weren't being managed well," he said.

Last month, Hayes-Martinez announced her resignation as chief. In an interview with the Arizona Daily Star, she said she would continue to serve on the force as a reserve officer.

South Tucson remains under severe pressure to rein in expenses, a state of affairs that could worsen if the recession is lengthy.

"We're hurting. We're hurting in terms of resources," said Serna. "The people that are still here are holding fast and are doing a great job."

Serna expressed hope that a new ordinance passed by the City Council recently would help to curb crime. About 60 percent of South Tucson's population lives in rental properties, and the ordinance would allow the city to take action against absentee landlords whose tenants are involved in drugs, prostitution and other crimes.

"We've got landlords, quite frankly, who turn a blind eye to who they rent to," said Serna. "Focusing on that is going to make a hell of a difference."

What South Tucson may need even more than a new ordinance is a workable strategy for economic development. According to finance director Villa, revenues were flat or declining long before the recent downturn.

"In terms of seeing new development, that hasn't happened," Villa said. "We have not seen businesses knocking on anyone's door in South Tucson. We have had to ride the tide, if you will."

With few prospects for new tax revenues on the horizon, South Tucson's best hope for boosting public safety spending lies in state and federal grants. But a recent federal grant application that sought funding for up to seven new officer positions yielded funds for only one.

In the meantime, neighborhoods continue to struggle with a rising tide of street crime. This August, a young man was shot multiple times and seriously injured while walking with friends down South Fourth Avenue.

Ricky Hidalgo lives only a few blocks from where the shooting took place. A few months earlier, he and his wife had taken their young son outside to play, only to find a prostitute standing on the corner across the street.

"In front of my house, in front of my kids, just waiting," he said.

A few days later, the same woman returned, working a different corner. This time, she found a customer, a man in a white pickup truck.

"They're coming back, the prostitutes," Hidalgo said. "It's starting to go back to the same way it was."

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