A six-month investigation resulted in dozens of raids Wednesday in Merced County and the arrests of 41 people with alleged ties to prison gangs and street gangs.
“In a well-coordinated sweep, federal, state and local law enforcement officers slammed the door on a major Central Valley-based gang and narcotics-trafficking organizations,” Larry D. Morse II, Merced County district attorney, said at news conference following the raids.
Morse said the traffickers had many “significant links” to the Nuestra Familia prison gang and described many of those arrested Wednesday as “pivotal members” of Norteño criminal street gangs in Merced County.
Morse stressed the majority of those arrested were mainly midlevel traffickers and not street-level dealers.
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At least five of the Merced County residents arrested Wednesday will be prosecuted in federal court, U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner said at the news conference in Atwater.
According to a complaint filed in U.S. District Court, Luis Tejeda-Hurtado, 24; Raul Reyes-Recio, 44; Roberto Alfonzo Gomez, 25; Larry Duncan, 23; and Alyncia Elliot, 22, face federal trafficking charges. All were arrested at their homes in Merced as part of the case, authorities said.
Charlotte Miller of Blytheville, Ark., was also arrested Wednesday in connection with the same group, the U.S. Justice Department said.
Federal court documents identify Tejeda-Hurtado and Reyes-Recio as suspected large-scale traffickers. Agents seized 30 pounds of methamphetamine and nearly 2 pounds of cocaine in November 2013 at a rented storage unit in Merced County that authorities said was tied to both men, according to the complaint.
Fifty-one people have been taken into custody since the investigation launched about six months ago, authorities said.
More than 200 agents executed arrest and search warrants in Merced County. Along with the arrests, agents reported seizing a total of 72.5 pounds of methamphetamine dating back to November 2013, besides 6 pounds of cocaine, 300 ecstasy pills, 10 marijuana growing operations, 20 firearms and $98,400 in U.S. currency, authorities said.
Several other suspects in Merced County remained at large Wednesday.
Merced County Sheriff Tom Cavallero and city police Chief Norman Andrade both said Wednesday’s raids made Merced a safer place to live.
Because the case remains under investigation, officials declined to release a full list of the nearly three dozen locations raided in Merced County. Court documents listed homes in Merced in the 1700 block of East Santa Fe Drive, the 600 block of East Mission Avenue and the 1800 block of Cheyenne Drive as among those raided Wednesday as part of the federal portion of the case.
An additional home in the 7100 block of North Winton Way in Winton also was searched, according to the complaint.
Investigators estimated at least 10 Merced homes were searched, plus about 10 more in the Beachwood area of the city. Approximately five Winton homes were targeted, along with about six in Atwater and several more in Los Banos, Modesto and Chowchilla.
The investigation primarily targeted midlevel dealers and suppliers of narcotics, mainly methamphetamine, in Merced, Los Banos and unincorporated areas of the county, a law enforcement source said, though the raids did stretch as far as Turlock.
Kent Shaw, state Justice Department Investigations Bureau chief, said the organization also has suspected ties to traffickers in Tennessee.
Spearheaded by the California Department of Justice’s Special Operations Unit, Wednesday’s operation targeted members of the Norteño criminal street gang for distributing crystal methamphetamine and collecting money on behalf of the Nuestra Familia prison gang, state Attorney General Kamala Harris said in a statement.
“Drug traffickers have built sophisticated alliances and distribution networks that stretch across state and national borders that require a coordinated law enforcement response,” Harris said in the release. “This seizure highlights the importance of cross-agency collaboration and the need to support the state task forces that make this work happen. I thank our local, state and federal partners for their ongoing commitment to fighting this serious threat.”
The Merced County District Attorney’s Office will prosecute suspects facing state charges. They were booked at Merced County jail and are being held on bail ranging from $150,000 to $1 million.
At least two schools, including Franklin Elementary, were locked down briefly Wednesday morning as a security precaution during the raids, an official confirmed.
Merced police Capt. Bimley West said he could not comment directly on the raids but confirmed there were “zero reports” of any threats to Merced school campuses.