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Gang takedown sweeps through Central Valley

POSTED June 10, 2011 8:23 p.m.

Two multi-agency operations led by the state attorney general’s office, has resulted in the arrest of 131 suspected gang members over the last few days and the confiscation of weapons, narcotics and cash.

On Tuesday, the operation code-named “Red Zone,” took into custody 75 alleged leaders and members of two transnational gangs operating in Madera, Los Banos, Livingston, Merced, Atwater and Dos Palos. Tuesday’s arrest totals were added to the 26 individuals taken into custody in the days leading up to the major gang sweep. “Operation Gateway” followed on Thursday when agents arrested 30 suspected gang members in the Tracy area.

Attorney General Kamala D. Harris announced the news of Tuesday’s takedown at a press conference on Wednesday in Los Banos. Harris called the first operation a major step forward in “taking out a ruthless gang and its leadership.”

"As transnational gangs traffic crime into California, we must counter their ruthlessness with our resolve," Harris said. "The arrest of dozens of transnational gang leaders and members frees California from a significant criminal threat."

Operation Red Zone grew out of intelligence obtained in earlier operations. In April 2010, agents from the Attorney General's Gang Suppression Enforcement and other law enforcement agencies arrested 37 members of the Nortenos and Surenos gangs in Salinas. These arrests targeted the most dangerous gang leaders and, along with an additional 57 arrests, had a significant impact on gang operations in Salinas.

The Department of Justice launched operation Red Zone in August 2010, when agents discovered that members of the Nuestra Familia gang — effectively driven out of Salinas in earlier sweeps — had set up drug trafficking operations in Madera and Merced counties.

Agents logged more than 8,100 hours on the investigation and narrowed in on dozens of gang members — ­tracking their day-to-day activities and gathering evidence of felonies ranging from drug trafficking to attempted murder, according to the DOJ.

Seventy-two arrest warrants were served at more than 50 locations in Merced and Madera counties. Those arrested were booked into the Madera and Merced county jails. Eight of the individuals arrested will be federally indicted, while the remainder will be prosecuted in Merced County. The eight men are facing federal charges of drug trafficking.

Two indictments were unsealed Tuesday. The first indictment charged Gonzalo Esquivel, aka Gunner, 30, and Efren Steve Jiminez, aka Grande, 32, both of Los Banos; Kenneth Hernandez, aka Kenny, 28, of Dos Palos; Gustavo Moreno, aka Gus Gus, 31, and David Torres, 29, both of Madera; with conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine, and distribution of methamphetamine. Moreno and Torres were also charged with possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine.

 According to the search warrant affidavit, an investigation began in September 2010 into the criminal activities of the Nuestra Familia prison gang and Norteno criminal street gang, using court-authorized wiretaps, surveillance and other investigative tools. The investigation found evidence of a conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine. According to the indictment, on April 29, these defendants possessed with intent to distribute more than 50 grams of methamphetamine, and Esquivel agreed to deliver two ounces of methamphetamine to Moreno. The affidavit alleges that on April 29, Esquivel, Hernandez, and Jiminez arranged the delivery of two ounces of methamphetamine to Moreno and Torres. When Moreno and Torres drove away, the California Highway Patrol stopped their car and found the methamphetamine inside it.

 

The second indictment charged Juan Herrera, aka Joker, 37; Felipe Gutierrez, 37; and Rafael Velasco, aka B-Street Guerro, 33, all of Madera, with conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and distribution of methamphetamine. According to the indictment, the defendants have been involved in a conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute since at least April 9. According to the affidavit, Torres was stopped by law enforcement and found to be in possession of methamphetamine allegedly purchased from Herrera. As a result of the federal arrests and search warrants yesterday, over a pound of suspected methamphetamine and at least one firearm was recovered.

“The arrests yesterday were simply the latest step in a joint campaign with our state and local law enforcement allies to attack the violent gangs who peddle methamphetamine in the Central Valley,” said United States Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner on Wednesday. “These arrests come one year after the state and federal arrests of more than 50 Norteno and Nuestra Familia gang members in the South Valley, many of whom are in federal custody awaiting trial. As part of this effort, my office has charged dozens of defendants with federal narcotics and firearms offenses over the last 18 months. At least eight defendants are already serving prison terms ranging from 18 to 40 years. This is a sustained, long-term campaign, but we are very pleased with the results so far, and with the close collaboration among the multiple law enforcement agencies that are a part of it.”

In addition to the arrests, agents seized four pounds of methamphetamine with a street value of $68,000, 27 weapons, rounds of rounds of ammunition and $75,000 in cash.

The arrests were conducted with assistance from Merced Gang Task Force, Madera Gang Task Force, Merced Narcotics Task Force, Merced County Sheriff's Department, Merced Police Department, Atwater Police Department, Los Banos Police Department, Livingston Police Department, Madera Police Department, Madera County Corrections, and the Drug Enforcement Agency.

In “Operation Gateway” agents served 28 state arrest warrants and 24 state search warrants in the Tracy area. The investigation has resulted in 30 arrests, 11 guns and approximately ¼ ounce of methamphetamine. Everyone arrested was booked into the San Joaquin County Jail.

The operation in Tracy was dubbed "Operation Gateway" because of the centralization of three interstates, the 205, 580 and 5, connecting Sacramento, the Bay Area and the Central Valley.

"Today the Department of Justice delivered another blow to the criminal gangs that have been making inroads into California's Central Valley," Harris said Thursday. "The arrests we have made over the past few days send a message to the individuals who are bringing drugs and guns into our communities. This conduct will receive swift and certain consequences."

To contact Sabra Stafford, e-mail sstafford@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2002.

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