Central Valley sweep strikes blow to Nuestra Familia
Central Valley gang probe results in 101 arrests
By JULIA REYNOLDS
California narcotics agents continued their ongoing effort to cripple the Nuestra Familia gang's statewide drug sales networks, arresting 101 people in a sweep announced Wednesday.
The nine-month Central Valley-based investigation called Operation Red Zone sprang from intelligence first gathered last year during Salinas' Operation Knockout, Salinas police spokesman Lalo Villegas said.
"This is where it started," Villegas said. "It's a big web. We've always said these gangsters are not just operating within city limits."
After months of surveillance by state Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement agents and local agencies, 75 suspects were arrested in a massive takedown Tuesday, Attorney General Kamala Harris said in a statement, following earlier arrests of 26 others.
It was the largest of the state's sweeps targeting the gang.
Eight suspects were indicted federally on charges of conspiring to distribute methamphetamine.
State officials said Operation Red Zone began last summer when BNE agents discovered that members of the gang were "effectively driven out of Salinas in earlier sweeps."
"They spread themselves out so they're not all in one spot," said BNE spokeswoman Michelle Gregory.
But the state agents who had holed up for months in a Salinas surveillance house "didn't just pack up and leave," Gregory said. "They followed them."
The gang members fleeing Salinas after last year's takedowns were mostly street-level traffickers, she said.
Since then, they have been trafficking drugs in Madera, Los Banos, Livingston, Merced, Atwater and the tiny town of Dos Palos, under the oversight of Nuestra Familia leadership, according to Harris' office.
The state narcotics bureau has worked hand-in-hand with local police agencies in at least five other Nuestra Familia regiment takedowns since April 2010, when wiretap and video surveillance for Operation Knockout revealed a web of leads and relationships.
That investigation was followed in June by Operation Tapout, with more arrests in Fresno, Kings, Kern and Tulare counties, and then August's Operation Street Sweeper in Visalia, Delano, Salinas and Watsonville.
Seven high-level defendants, including two former Salinas regiment commanders — Martin "Cyclone" Montoya and Philip Sparks — as well as other Salinas and Watsonville gang members still face federal drug conspiracy charges in connection with those cases. U.S. Attorney Ben Wagner said at least eight defendants charged in his Eastern District are already serving sentences ranging from 18 to 40 years.
"Some of the intel that was gathered (in Salinas) was a big learning tool for all of us," Villegas said. "I think that's why they're having success with these other big operations."
Last August, just before the culmination of Street Sweeper, the Red Zone investigation began with 21 state agents logging more than 8,000 hours, and 15 other agencies assisting, state officials said. In recent months, BNE has conducted Nuestra Familia and affiliated Norteño gang crackdowns in Chico and Contra Costa County.
In addition to this week's arrests, officers and agents seized undisclosed quantities of methamphetamine, marijuana plants and crack cocaine, as well as more than a dozen firearms, including five assault rifles. They also confiscated more than $64,000 in cash.
The gang's regiment commanders in Madera and the Los Banos area were both arrested in the takedowns, Gregory said, although the two men were not named as of late Wednesday.
A complete list of those arrested also was unavailable late Wednesday.
Two federal indictments handed down June 2 in Fresno and unsealed Tuesday alleged conspiracy and distribution of methamphetamine charges.
The first indictment named Gonzalo "Gunner" Esquivel, 30, and Efren Steve "Grande" Jiminez, 32, both of Los Banos; Kenneth Hernandez, 28, of Dos Palos; Gustavo "Gus Gus" Moreno, 31, and David Torres, 29, both of Madera.
The second indictment named Juan "Joker" Herrera, 37; Felipe Gutierrez, 37; and Rafael "B-Street Guerro" Velasco, 33, all of Madera.
According to a search warrant affidavit, the investigation used court-authorized wiretaps, surveillance and other investigative tools.
The defendants face between five and 40 years in federal prison and up to $5million in fines.
Harris' office said agents also gathered evidence of an attempted murder, and Gregory said aggravated assault and other violent-crime charges will be filed in state court.
Citing BNE agents' experience with gang drug prosecutions as well as wiretap and surveillance technology, local law enforcement agencies are still hoping a BNE-led multi-agency gang and drug task force will get under way after more than a year of frustrating delays.
That task force was first announced by then-Attorney General Jerry Brown in April 2010, when Brown came to Salinas to tout Operation Knockout's arrests.
But federal funds that would allow the FBI to provide an operations center in Salinas have been delayed until a federal budget can be passed, agents said, and some Peninsula cities have yet to sign memoranda of understanding that would allow the task force to begin operations.
Salinas officials, however, are eager to see it started.
"Our guys are ready to go," Villegas said.
Area gang investigators agree that the gang's leadership structure has suffered from the continuing arrests of regiment leaders around the state.
"They're pretty organized ... but we've fragmented them with all these cases we've done," Gregory said.
As in past operations, state agents say their pursuit of the Nuestra Familia is not over.
"We will continue with whoever's left," Gregory said. "If they move, we will follow them."