Guillermo came to L.A. from the village of Soyapango, El Salvador, when he was 4 years old. His belly swollen with parasites, he rode on his uncle's shoulders as they navigated a well-worn trail in the night jungle to avoid the heat. Guided by a rope and a vision, they aimed for El Norte.
It hasn't been easy. He spent his adolescence on Skid Row shooting dope and getting arrested 25 times (his estimate) by the time he was 25. But he's married now and lives in a small house with a dirt yard deep in the Valley. He has a steady job at a nonprofit clinic, five kids, five dogs, two parrots, two turtles, some chickens, a rooster and a couple ducks.
"We had to get rid of one of the dogs. Now we're down to five," he says, forgetting to count the eight puppies in the garage.
Late-model American cars in varied states of repair line this less-than-lovely street in the Valley and Guillermo is under the hood of his Nova. He's been working on it for a year, and it's almost done. His wife, Maivee, is inside cleaning the kitchen. Guillermo's friend shows up and goes inside to the bathroom. A car speeds down the block and skids to a stop. The driver jumps out and gets into the backseat of a waiting car, which speeds off.
Guillermo calls the cops to tell them that another stolen car has been dumped in front of his house. Then he goes to check it out and sees a case of Marlboro Reds in the backseat. The car, a Honda, is unlocked. The engine is still running.
He grabs the cigarettes and heads back to his Nova. Three unmarked cars swoop in. Cops from the Valley Crime Task Force descend on Guillermo SWAT-style. Guns are pointed while he's still on the phone reporting the abandoned car.
Guillermo's friend comes out of the house in time to see him being cuffed. He is visibly shaken; he hasn't been in bracelets in years. His friend watches the cops arrest him for grand theft. He pleads guilty and draws a sentence of 30 days of Caltrans labor, two years' probation and some fines.
Later, Guillermo and his friend are back in the driveway with the Nova on a Sunday afternoon. The arrest has been costly for him. "It'll be about 3,500 bucks for a carton of Marlboro Reds by the time it's over," he says. "I shoulda fuckin' known better."
The experience reminds him of a reality TV show, Bait Car. "I've fuckin' seen the fuckin' show," he says.
The Nova is purring like a kitten. Guillermo tunes in 95.5 KLOS and sings along. He knows all the words to Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire."
He leans back on the headrest and sighs. "I think maybe they should focus on criminals and give a little heads-up when someone calls and says somebody dropped a stolen car in front of my house.
"I wasn't victimized. I was just the right person at the wrong time."
He turns off the car and goes inside and logs on to the LAPD's website. He's looking for answers in the numbers, but he can't find any charts or graphs that break down the race or social caste of bait-car arrestees. Nothing about the budget for the operation.
All Guillermo can find is some maps with a lot of dots that say crime is going down, and a catchy slogan for the campaign about theft from cars: "Lock It, Hide It, Keep It."
The site even has a hidden-camera video of a cholo caught in a bait-car sting, but it's not nearly as exciting as the ones from the first season of TruTV's Bait Car, starring the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. Bait Car isn't exactly high-minded, but it sure is fun to watch the cops round up all the black and brown bad guys and take them to jail. The cops look like they're having a blast, too. They ditch the bait car in a low-income neighborhood, still running, doors unlocked. They leave some
stuff in the car to attract criminals: a manila envelope that looks like it has cash in it, and a carton of Marlboro Reds. It's like Adam-12 and Smokey and the Bandit all rolled into one, with lots of flashy post-production.
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"I don't see any lesson," Guillermo concludes. "Don't steal cigarettes from the bait car? Maybe I should quit smoking," he says and laughs and coughs.
"It's fucked what they're doing. I understand that they look at it like a service to the community to keep the population safe, but let's face it, they're not going about it the right way. It's not a good use of my taxpayer money.
"All they're doing is putting people away who don't have any reason to be in jail. I guess it all comes down to numbers. I guess you wanna be the police station with the most arrests and take the bad people off the street so mortgage rates go up, property taxes go up, gated communities come in.
"The mayor shows up to shake some hands and the $10 whores move a little bit further down the street."