Nearly 100 members of California prison, street gangs arrested in mass bust, feds say

Local, state and federal law enforcement officials on Wednesday announced the arrests of 96 members and associates of the prison gang Nuestra Familia as part of widespread crackdown on gang activity in Kings and Tulare counties.

The arrests capped a six month-long investigation to dismantle the criminal organization and one of its key allies, the Norteno street gang. Along with the arrests, law enforcement officers seized 11 pounds of methamphetamine and 74 firearms — including 14 that were fully automatic.

Dubbed “Operation Red Reaper,” the sweep was carried out Tuesday with dozens of officers serving search and arrest warrants in multiple cities across the central San Joaquin Valley.

The suspects face a slew of charges including murder, drug trafficking, drug manufacturing, possession of illegal weapons and extortion. Among those arrested were several top leaders of Nuestra Familia, who officials said were running the operation from Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga.

“We have dismantled, to the best of our ability, the upper ranks of this structure and we hope and pray for a peaceful summer and months to come,” said Robert Thayer, assistant sheriff for Kings County Sheriff’s Office, the lead agency in the operation.

As part of the take down, law enforcement officers stumbled across a home invasion robbery that led to an officer-involved shooting of one of the suspects, Thayer said. That investigation continues.

Local and federal officials have accused high-ranking Nuestra Familia members Salvador Castro, Jr. and Raymond Lopez of using contraband cell phones from the prison to arrange the movement of narcotics, including methamphetamine, from drug sources in California and Mexico to a stash house in Kings County.

From the stash house, gang members prepared the drugs for delivery to distributors throughout Kings and Tulare Counties.

Of those arrested, 21 will face various federal drug charges.

U.S. Attorney McGregor W. Scott said this is the second time in two weeks that federal agents have targeted some of the state’s most notorious prison gangs. Recently, federal officials charged members of another prison gang, the Aryan Brotherhood, for allegedly ordering murders, selling drugs and smuggling cell phones into the prison.

“This coordinated law enforcement operation highlights how federal, state, and local law enforcement partners can work together to target gang activities that make our communities unsafe,” he said.

Tuesday’s operation was the third time in recent years that law enforcement has disrupted Nuestra Familia’s gang operations.

“We have put a serious dent in this organization and if we have to we will come back a fourth time,” Scott said.

Nuestra Familia and the Norteno street gang are responsible for flooding the region with a steady flow of methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana, according to law enforcement.

On Tuesday, more than 50 search and arrest warrants in the case were served in Kings, Tulare, Fresno and Kern counties.

Investigators began using wiretaps in March to investigate the activities of the Nuestro Familia gang and the Norteno street gang.

From March through this month authorities seized multiple pounds of methamphetamine and other drugs during vehicle stops that law enforcement agencies made in the Central Valley, after listening in on wiretapped phone calls, the affidavit says.

The investigation is the latest effort to disrupt the gang’s activities in California, where about 2,500 members of the Norteno street gang ages 12 to 40 are believed to live in Kings County, court documents say.

Nearly a dozen different agencies and task forces took part in the crackdown.

Among those involved was the Kings County Major Crimes Task Force, California Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Tulare Area Gang Narcotic Enforcement Team and the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of California.

FBI Sacramento Field Office Special Agent in Charge Sean Ragan said the FBI provided about 200 personnel from its offices in Fresno, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego and Las Vegas. The department also supplied its hostage rescue team from Quantico, Virginia to assist in serving search warrants.

The Sacramento Bee contributed to this report.

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