- A five-month investigation ended Thursday in Merced County with dozens of Norteno gang members arrested, including at least two in connection with a recent double homicide, as well as the seizure of firearms, drugs and pirated DVDs.
The lengthy probe into Merced-area street-gang violence, dubbed “Operation Red Right Hand,”resulted in 75 arrests, of which 50 people were booked into the Merced County Jail on a variety of violent allegations, including murder, attempted murder and conspiracy, Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke said.
About 25 of the people arrested were released without charges Thursday, pending further investigation.
The investigation and subsequent arrests Thursday came in response to increasing violence in Merced County over the last two years, much of which involved local gang members acting at the direction of the Nuestra Familia state prison gang, authorities said in a prepared statement.
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“The last two years have been the bloodiest in Merced County’s history, with more than 60 homicides,” District Attorney Larry Morse II said. “Even more disturbing is that it comes at time when violent crime in California has been reaching historic lows. We’ve been moving in a bad way against the tide.”
Sheriff Vern Warnke and Merced police Chief Norman Andrade said they believed the community “is a safer place” as a result of the operation.
“We have at least 50 of the baddest guys in our county in jail now,” Warnke said.
Andrade noted the 10-hour sweep netted dozens of arrests for people wanted in connection with violent gang crimes. “And not a single shot, that we know of, was fired,” Andrade said. “That’s a remarkable feat.”
At least two of the arrests made Thursday came in connection with the April 6 gang-related double homicide in Winton, prosecutors and deputies confirmed.
Salvador Enrique Medina Chaves, 36, of Winton and Jose Zamora, 18, of Merced, were killed during a shootout, apparently between rival gangs, in the 6800 block of Walnut Avenue, deputies said.
On Thursday, authorities arrested Jose Ariel Hernandez Jr., 19, and David Zamora, 20, both of Merced, in connection with that case. Both men are expected to be charged with two counts each of homicide and other crimes, according to Nicole Silveira, deputy district attorney prosecuting the case.
Both suspects remained in custody Thursday night without bail at the Merced County Jail, according to booking records.
A total of at least six people are suspected of involvement in the deaths and are expected to face various criminal charges, Silveira confirmed.
A 13-year-old male was arrested previously in the same case, Detective-Sgt. Chuck Hale confirmed.
“Our detectives did outstanding work and we’re pleased with the collaborative efforts put together by all the agencies involved,” Hale said.
Prosecutors and deputies said it was too early in the case to publicly identify the shooters.
Prosecutors said the teenager cannot be charged as an adult. The case is expected to be filed by Monday in Merced Superior Court.
Authorities on Thursday seized $85,000 in cash, about 5,000 pirated DVDs, about 1,500 pseudo-ephedrine pills, 11 firearms, four pounds of methamphetamine, three pounds of cocaine, one pound of heroin and 50 pounds of marijuana.
All the cases stemming from Thursday’s action are expected to be prosecuted in Merced County.
Merced County has reported 11 homicides so far in 2015, many of them gang related.
Last year, authorities said, there were 32 homicides reported in the county, the greatest total in Merced County history. A total of 15 of the homicides in 2014 were reported in Merced, which was also a record for the city.
The April double homicide in Winton has been the only violent death reported so far in 2015 in the sheriff’s jurisdiction. Between 2013 and 2014, there were more than 30 homicides in unincorporated areas of Merced County.
Rob Parsons: 209-385-2482
Agencies involved in Thursday’s Action:
Merced police, the California Highway Patrol, the Merced County Sheriff’s Department, Los Banos police, Livingston police, the California Department of Justice, the Drug Enforcement Agency, Merced County Probation Department, California parole agents, Merced Multi-Agency Narcotics Task Force and the Merced County District Attorney’s Office.