By midday July 23, 1999, this Panhandle prairie town was abuzz with news of the biggest drug bust ever here. The jail was packed with suspects rounded up that morning after a grand jury indicted 43 men and women for allegedly selling small amounts of cocaine to a sheriff's deputy in an undercover operation. Most townspeople, though not all, applauded the arrests.

"I remember thinking, 'Well, good; it's about time,' " said Debra Earl, 47, a school system employee who later served on a jury in one of the cases.

Earl is white, like most of the 5,000 residents of this isolated community, an hour's drive south of Amarillo across the lonesome, table-flat crop lands of the High Plains.

"Drugs were getting bad," said another white resident, Daryl Tucker, 48, who runs a company that builds bowling alleys. "Our town as a whole sort of told the sheriff, 'We need to clean up these drugs.' And he's been doing a fine job of it, I think."

Black residents, however, had a far different reaction to the 18-month drug sting, which is the focus of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and an FBI investigation ordered by the Justice Department's civil rights division.

Of the 43 people arrested, 40 are black -- about 17 percent of Tulia's small black population. Nearly every black person in town had a relative or friend on the indictment list. The ACLU lawsuit, filed in September, alleges that many of the cases were built on "false testimony and fabricated evidence." In a formal complaint to the Justice Department last fall, which prompted the ongoing FBI probe, the ACLU called the undercover operation "an ethnic cleansing of young male blacks from Tulia."

"If you ask me, they just wanted to take whatever was left of the black folks in town and run them all out, and they used the law to do it," said Cleveland Henderson, 25, who lost his job as a dishwasher after being indicted. Like others, Henderson, who is on probation, said that he was falsely accused and that he pleaded guilty in a deal with the prosecutor because he feared getting a stiff prison term if convicted at a trial.

Only five of the 43 people indicted had prior drug convictions, according to court records. Most were charged with multiple counts of selling one to four grams of cocaine to the undercover deputy, who alleged in many cases that the deals occurred near schools or public parks, increasing the potential penalty. The ACLU said there were no surveillance photos, independent witnesses or other evidence in the cases -- just the testimony of the white deputy, who worked unsupervised on the streets.

Eight men were convicted at trials in Tulia last year by all-white or mostly white juries, and given penitentiary terms of 12, 20, 20, 25, 40, 45, 60 and 99 years, said Jeff Blackburn, an ACLU lawyer. Of those who made plea deals to avoid similarly long prison stretches, 14 were locked up. The stiffest sentence was eight years.

Whether the sting was a righteous law-and-order victory or a case of racial profiling made worse by trumped-up charges, this much is clear: The war on drugs here has deepened the social divide between Tulia's largely white establishment and the black community, which is mostly poor. And it has highlighted their contrary perceptions of law enforcement: One group trusts the police; the other doesn't.

"Without a shadow of a doubt, I did not do it," said Lawanda Smith, 25, who was a junior college student at the time of her arrest. Although she pleaded guilty in exchange for probation, Smith said in an interview: "The charges were totally bogus -- and that's the truth from within my heart. To be accused of something you know you didn't do is an awful feeling. It's just something that I'll never get over."

The ACLU lawsuit alleges false imprisonment and other misdeeds by Swisher County Sheriff Larry Stewart, District Attorney Terry D. McEachern and the undercover deputy, Thomas Coleman, all of whom are white. Through their attorneys, the three men denied the allegations in the lawsuit and the Justice Department complaint.

Coleman, who was hired by Stewart to conduct the sting, is now working elsewhere in Texas and could not be located for comment. "It's our position that none of the prosecutions was racially motivated and all were justified," said lawyer Charlotte Bingham, who represents McEachern and Stewart. She said her clients would have no comment on the controversy.

It isn't difficult in Tulia to find white residents eager to praise the sheriff. Tucker, the bowling alley builder, called Stewart "as fine a Christian man as there ever was. He grew up here, and he's a fair guy wanting to do his job as best he can."

"I'm in total support of the sheriff," said Richard Chapman, 41, a partner in an insurance agency. Like others, he scoffed at the accusation that the drug sting was devised with the black community in mind. When the undercover deputy began his work, "he just happened to get involved with that group, and that's how it played out," Chapman said. "It wasn't a racial-profiling deal at all."

The mayor, Boyd Vaughn, 67, agreed and said he wasn't surprised when he read the indictment list. "These are people that aren't real energetic, don't have jobs, don't work real hard," he said. "You see them hanging around all the time." As for the ACLU's charge of "ethnic cleansing," he called it "bull," saying, "Black people that I know, I'm still friends with them. . . . We've never had racial problems in this community."

Blackburn and other lawyers said some of the suspects acknowledged selling cocaine to Coleman, but in much smaller quantities than alleged and at times and places different from those sworn to by the deputy. Others who were arrested contend they were falsely charged because they are friends or relatives of people who met with Coleman.

Chandra White, 22, one of the three white people indicted after the sting, is married to a black man, Kareem White, who was sentenced to 60 years.

"I had never, ever, seen this man until I was getting bailed out of jail," Chandra White said of the deputy. "My mom was getting me out and she saw him standing there, and she said, 'There's the one you sold drugs to.' And I said, 'Him?' This man was standing right in front of my face and I didn't even know who he was."

The charges against her were dropped, she said, after she produced a time card showing she was at work on the day the deputy allegedly bought cocaine from her at her home.

In all but a few cases, Coleman alleged that the suspects sold him one to four grams of powder cocaine, which is punishable by up to 20 years in state prison. But those who acknowledged dealing with Coleman said they sold him rocks of crack, a cheaper form of cocaine, weighing less than a gram, which carries a jail term of up to 18 months.

"The drugs here were crack and marijuana," said Smith, echoing others in Tulia's black community. "I don't even know what powder looks like."

Blackburn and other lawyers noted that a tiny rock of crack can be ground up and mixed with baking soda or other cutting agents to produce more than a gram of powder. Under Texas law, prison sentences in cocaine cases are based on the weight of the product, no matter how diluted it is.

Coleman, now 41, was hired from out of town to conduct the sting, which began in January 1998. Before taking the job, he was out of law enforcement, working as a welder, according to Blackburn. Coleman's experience was limited to stints as a jailer and a deputy in a few Texas counties and a two-week training course in undercover work run by the Drug Enforcement Administration, Blackburn said.

In 1996, Coleman, who was then a deputy in Cochran County in West Texas, quit his job in the middle of a shift and moved away, leaving nearly $7,000 in debts with local merchants, according to a letter written by the Cochran sheriff to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, the state agency that licenses police officers.

"It is my opinion that an officer should uphold the law," the Cochran sheriff wrote in the 1996 letter. "Mr. Coleman should not be in law enforcement."

In Tulia, he left some people gratified and others fearful.

"I don't care whether you're white or black or brown or pink or what color," Tucker said. "We just don't want drugs in our town. And we're going to clean it up no matter what it takes. I don't care whose toes we have to step on to get it done."

In the black community, Smith said, old friends who used to socialize nightly on corners and around the basketball court at Conner Park seldom get together any more.

"We're all felons, so we can't really hang with one another," she said. "We have to stay away from each other or else we'll get our probation revoked."

A monument stands in the middle of downtown Tulia, Tex., where about 17 percent of the black residents were arrested in a drug sweep.Lawanda Smith, at her Tulia, Tex., home with a friend's daughter, Brittany White, 10, pleaded guilty to what she calls bogus drug charges.