VIPER money played key role in massive gang sweep in Merced, officials say

Last week’s Operation Scrapbook went off without a hitch, but county officials say it wouldn’t have been possible without VIPER, a program signed into California’s budget by the governor.

The Violence Interruption/Prevention Emergency Response program recruited, hired and trained analysts, set up a facility and acquired equipment to begin its operation. The program became fully operational in mid-February and played a key role in putting dozens of Sureño gang members behind bars, officials say.

Operation Scrapbook targeted Sureño gang members operating under the umbrella of the Mexican Mafia. Raids throughout Merced and Stanislaus counties on May 10 netted more than 50 arrests, at least 70 guns, $225,000 cash, 21,000 rounds of ammunition and 6.5 pounds of methamphetamine, authorities reported.

VIPER analysts worked to vet information, distribute it to law enforcement agencies, analyze it and put it in a format so that agents and detectives could use it, said Bill Olson, supervising investigator with VIPER.

“The end result was 500 law enforcement officers were able to come to Merced County as a result of the case and dismantle a group of individuals in a way that’s going to have an impact on public safety,” Olson said.

District Attorney Larry Morse II said VIPER also was instrumental in the “safe and successful” outcome of Operation Scrapbook. Law enforcement officers knew last week who lived and frequented the homes where warrants were served as well as the homes’ basic layout. They also were familiar with the characteristics of the neighborhood.

“All of those things diminished the likelihood that there’s going to be an accident,” Morse said.

Officials touted that although dozens of warrants were served and more than 50 arrests were made, officers did not fire a single shot during the early morning operation.

Olson said Merced County, prior to VIPER, didn’t have much analytical data on crime. VIPER was able to gather data from all law enforcement agencies and make it compatible and easy to use and share among agencies.

After Operation Red Right Hand in 2015 stifled Norteño gang activity, Morse said. Sureño gangs ramped up activity under the Mexican Mafia. VIPER provided key, consistent intelligence that hopefully will provide consistent suppression in gang activity.

“Operation Red Right Hand –we know that when we’ve done these kinds of combined operations, we have been very successful in reducing the violence,” Morse said. “What we have not been able to do is maintain the surveillance. So what we agreed was necessary was an intelligence unit that we could create in Merced County that would avoid the peaks and valleys in dealing with the gang problem and maintain a constant presence.”

That’s where Assemblymember Adam Gray came in. Gray, D-Merced, said Merced County law enforcement agencies made his job easy by getting together and identifying the problem and a solution.

But, typically, getting $4.5 million out of the state budget for one county is “near impossible.” Gray said he received key support from other assembly members to persuade the governor to support the funding.

“There was a lot of steps in the Sacramento world to secure this,” Gray said. “This is just such a great example of when you give folks resources and watch them execute something that keeps kids safe, keeps families safe and gets violent people off the street,” Gray said. “It’s going to have a huge downward impact, from what I understand. That’s the whole concept here.”

VIPER’s funding will last three years, and the program will develop in phases. The first phase included developing the information management unit. The second phase will consist of developing cases and prosecuting them, and the third phase will incorporate community involvement by hiring community-based counselors.

Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477