Attorney General: Gang sweep in Merced, Madera counties nets 101

Officers arrest a man and woman at a Los Banos apartment complex Tuesday morning, June 7, 2011 as part of the gang sweep Tuesday in Los Banos. They were taken to the Merced County Fairgrounds in Los Banos for processing before being transported to jail.
GENE LIEB/LOS BANOS ENTERPRISE Officers arrest a man and woman at a Los Banos apartment complex Tuesday morning, June 7, 2011 as part of the gang sweep Tuesday in Los Banos. They were taken to the Merced County Fairgrounds in Los Banos for processing before being transported to jail. Los Banos Enterprise

Dozens of young men, many covered in gang tattoos, were led away in handcuffs at sites in Merced and Madera counties Tuesday, as agents from numerous law enforcement agencies conducted a gang sweep resulting in 101 arrests -- including five high-ranking members of the notorious Nuestra Familia gang.

Code-named "Operation Red Zone," the largest ever gang sweep in Merced County was conducted by agents on 31 teams who served 72 arrest warrants at more than 50 locations, on charges ranging from attempted murder to drug trafficking.

State Attorney General Kamala D. Harris held a news conference Wednesday morning at Los Banos City Hall announcing the sweep's results, calling it an "incredible, incredible" operation geared toward "taking out a ruthless gang and its leadership."

"This operation will bear its fruit, in terms of public safety, for the Central Valley and throughout the state of California," Harris said. "This is an incredible statement of the work that is done every day by law enforcement, working together across local, state and federal lines."

Harris was joined at the podium by several officials, including Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II, U.S. Attorney Ben Wagner, Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, Merced Police Chief Norm Andrade, Atwater Police Chief Richard Hawthorne, Los Banos Police Chief Gary Brizzee, Livingston Interim Police Chief Chris Soria and Madera County Sheriff John Anderson.

Department of Justice officials said the operation was launched in August after Justice agents discovered Nuestra Familia gang members had set up drug-trafficking operations in Merced, Los Banos, Dos Palos, Atwater and Madera.

Norteño foot soldiers

Many of those arrested Tuesday are believed to belong to the Norteño gang. Norteños are typically used by Nuestra Familia as foot soldiers for criminal operations on the street.

During Tuesday's operation, agents and officers used the Los Banos Fairgrounds as a staging area. Teams went to selected targets, announcing their presence before using battering rams to knock down doors. The handcuffed suspects were brought to a room at the fairgrounds, then were loaded into vans and driven to the Merced County Jail and other locations for booking. Meanwhile, state helicopters observed the operations from above.

Of the 101 arrested, the five high-ranking members of Nuestra Familia were identified as Felipe Gutierrez of Fresno, 37; Gonzalo "Gunner" Esquivel of Los Banos, 30; Gustavo "Gus Gus" Moreno of Madera, 31; Augustine Singh, 31; and Ephraim Garibay of Livingston, 27. Singh was in the Merced County Jail when he was arrested on new charges Tuesday, according to Justice Special Agent Dean Johnston.

Of those suspects, Esquivel and Moreno were indicted on federal charges of conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and distribution of methamphetamine. Also arrested on federal meth charges were Efren Steve "Grande" Jimenez of Los Banos, 32; Kenneth "Kenny" Hernandez of Dos Palos, 28; David Torres of Madera, 29; Juan "Joker" Herrera of Madera, 37; and Rafael "B-Street" Guerra of Madera, 33.

Operation Red Zone was spearheaded by the Fresno office of Justice's Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement with assistance from 16 local, state and federal agencies, including the Merced Multi-Agency Gang Task Force, Merced Multi-Agency Narcotics Task Force, Merced police, Merced County Sheriff's Department, Atwater police, Los Banos police and Livingston police.

Much of the investigative work in Merced County was conducted by agents from the Merced task forces.

"(Operation Red Zone) was a labor intensive, sensitive undertaking and was conducted with surgical precision by the incredible men and woman at (the Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement)," said Morse, who spearheaded Merced's gang task force in 2007.

Val Pacheco, commander of the gang task force and a special agent supervisor with the state Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, said the operation was the culmination of "years of intel" in gathering names and identifying targets. Although some of the Nuestra Familia's rivals may try to step up and take control on the street in the wake of the arrests, Pacheco said, the task force will keep identifying and arresting gang members.

"We just have to stay vigilant and keep the pressure on them," Pacheco said. "We're not done. This is just the start of more to come."

Cash, meth and guns

During the operation, agents reported finding $75,000 in cash and four pounds of meth worth about $68,000, as well as 27 weapons, including nine assault weapons and dozens of rounds of ammunition.

Justice officials said Red Zone also grew out of intelligence gathered from earlier operations. For example, in April 2010, agents arrested dozens of Norteño and Sureño gang members in Salinas. Officials said those arrests targeted the most dangerous gang leaders.

Nearly a year ago, in the Hanford-Kings County and Kern County area, 24 members and associates of Nuestra Familia were arrested and charged in a similar operation, Wagner said, adding that nearly 50 Nuestra Familia and Norteño gang suspects are awaiting trial in Fresno federal court.

Although officials didn't have a price tag for Red Zone, Harris said Justice agents logged 8,100 hours working on the case.

Managing Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at vpatton@mercedsun-star.comor (209) 385-2431.