Depending on where you live in Merced County, you hear more or less gunfire. In some areas you hear a lot of it; in others maybe very little. But everyone knows it is out there and we appreciate law enforcement's efforts to reduce violence in the county. Chances are the latest crime-busting technique of listening in on kids' social media will not "put an end to this crisis," as state Assemblyman Adam Gray claims, but it might help prevent some crime.
The opiate painkiller epidemic arrived with the new millennium. When doctors found that OxiContin and other opiates were just as addictive as morphine was in the Civil War, they cut back prescriptions and addicted patients sought street relief with heroin, causing a comeback of Mexican brown. The story is well-told by Sam Quinones in Dreamland. Meanwhile, marijuana production and quality improvement in California continued to increase and after numerous attempts, limited growing was legalized in California. The federal government, however, has not changed its position that marijuana is an illegal narcotic drug. Regardless, pressure from new, well-financed growers and land speculators has driven up pastureland prices to the point where cattle ranchers are finding it hard to compete. And water tables are falling rapidly in regions that receive three times as much rain as the Valley does.
Crime is politicized now but it has, perhaps in a different sense, always been politicized. Security is the most important "product" of government and, as we see from these articles, regardless of the real economy of organized crime in the regional drug trade, government must always assure the people it is winning "the war against drugs," which the government has lost, battle by battle, as surely as it lost the Vietnam War and is losing this neo-Thirty Years War in the Middle East.
But the whole crime-busting news has gotten a little hyperbolic. It takes more than 500 law enforcement officers to arrest 52 people to indict 11 suspects? Even a newspaper as supportive as the Merced Sun-Star can't bury the details deeply enough. This particular bust sounds like a waste of public revenues when compared with earlier busts before the inventors of VIPER (Violence Interruption/Prevention Emergency Response) came to town and argued that eavesdropping on known criminals and high school students' laptops and hand-held devices was the law enforcement equivalent of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle.
We support and appreciate police efforts to fight crime in our communities and grant that there is probably much we are not seeing in the VIPER effort. Our concern is that we know, from long experience, that when law enforcement puts on a show to attract new funds, it's impossible to tell whether they are getting good results. --blj
Gang violence prevention money headed to Merced
The new state budget approved Monday by Gov. Jerry Brown earmarks about $4.5 million for Merced-area law enforcement to combat gang violence and other law enforcement issues.
The Violence Interruption/Prevention Emergency Response, or VIPER, program uses social media, informants and information databases to intervene before violence happens, according to leaders. Another $20 million in the state’s budget is set to go to police departments with 100 or fewer officers to implement plans to work with young people before they join gangs, among other efforts.
All six police departments in Merced County fit that criteria.
The governor’s signature came on the final day for him to act on the measure, which the Legislature approved mostly along party lines June 15, along with several related budget trailer bills. The measure calls for $122.5 billion in general fund spending and $44.6 billion in special fund spending, along with $3.6 billion in bond spending.
The Merced-specific funding was pushed through the state Legislature by Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, and state Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres.
“Most importantly, though, this budget acknowledges the violent crime and record homicide rate plaguing Merced County and provides the tools necessary to put an end to this crisis,” Gray said in a news release.
“I am proud of the work this budget represents,” Gray said. “This is a huge win.”
Merced County had 93 slayings in the past three years, according to law enforcement officials. The county had 10.9 homicides per 100,000 residents in the latest numbers available, officials confirmed, which is double the state average.
“A safer Merced County is the goal for all of us,” Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II said in a news release. “This funding provides an incredible opportunity for us to create a state of the art gang prevention program.”
Another $1.1 million in the state budget would pay for emergency preparedness equipment at UC Merced.
Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke said the funding is going to be a great tool for the county. “The VIPER program is going to be such an essential part in us fighting the gang problem in this county and it is very much appreciated that the governor signed this bill,” he said. “I am also very pleased that UC Merced got the funding they desperately needed to improve their safety concerns at the college.”
Merced County Gang Raids: 52 arrests, $225k cash, 21,000 rounds of ammo
By Brianna Calix
Investigators arrested 52 gang members and seized 70 guns early Wednesday after hundreds of local, state, and federal investigators raided dozens of Merced County homes targeting Sureno gang members operating under the umbrella of the Mexican Mafia.
The nearly year-long investigation, dubbed “Operation Scrapbook,” netted more than $225,000 cash, 21,000 rounds of ammunition and 6.5 pounds of methamphetamine, authorities reported.
“Today we decided to rain on the Sureno parade,” Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke told the Sun-Star.
Undercover operations began with surveillance as early as January when investigators used confidential sources to buy guns and drugs from local Sureno gang members’ whose communications on social media apps such as Snapchat and Facebook were being intercepted, according to a complaint filed Monday in federal court.
“Today was a tremendous day for public safety in Merced County,” District Attorney Larry Morse II said at a news conference. “Some of the most violent criminals in our communities have been taken off our streets along with many of the weapons and substantial cash they use to commit murder and mayhem.”
A criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Fresno named two men as defendants and outlined the events leading up to Wednesday’s raids, including gun and drug purchases from gang members, wiretapped conversations and an intercepted package at a post office with a Teddy bear full of methamphetamine.
The 99-page complaint charges 22-year-old Robert “Bubba” Guthrie and 28-year-old Andres Corona Prado with gun and drug trafficking, conspiracy, unlawfully possessing guns and more. Nine additional people are named as defendants in the complaint.
More than 500 law enforcement officials from the FBI, the state Department of Justice, the Merced County Sheriff’s Office, local police departments and more descended about 6 a.m. Wednesday on multiple communities, primarily in Atwater and Winton, to serve search warrants and make arrests.
The raids included helicopters and SWAT teams. Those arrested were fingerprinted and booked at a command post at Castle Commerce Center.
Officials said the operation went off without a hitch. Not one shot was fired, and no injuries were reported, Morse said. “That is the definition of a successful operation,” he said.
Investigators targeted local Sureno gangs, such as the A-Town Locs, Delhi Ghost Town Surenos, South Side Locs, Los Primos, Planet Sur Trece, Winton Vario Parque, Territorio Sur Trece, Willow Street and Bonsallo Locos Surenos, according to the complaint.
Wednesday’s raids were similar to a 2015 case that targeted Norteno gangs in Merced County, Operation Red Right Hand.
Since that operation, Surenos “...have had influx and have become more brazen in typically Norteno territory strong-holds,” the complaint says. The Merced County Sureno gangs, namely the A-Town Locs where Guthrie has influence, began working closer with the Mexican Mafia, known as “Le Eme.”
“This restructuring of the Sureno criminal street gangs and aligning together has allowed the Sureno criminal street gangs in Merced County to become more organized, powerful and to generate money for the Mexican Mafia,” the complaint says.
Over the course of the months-long investigation, 16 acts of violence were prevented, Morse said. At least 20 gun transactions also were interrupted.
One of those incidents was a high-speed pursuit that ended in a manhunt near the Franklin area in late March.
High-tech intelligence and collaboration between federal, state and local agencies as well as the county’s VIPER program, made the operation possible, officials said.
Merced Police Sgt. Rod Court, who works with the Merced Area Gang and Narcotics Enforcement Team, said the name of the operation was a combination of the Sureno gang nickname and the social media platforms it uses.
“Just like everyone else, these gang members use these mediums to share information and express themselves,” Court said.
Guthrie was named as a person of interest early on in the investigation, Court said.
“He’s a walking billboard for A-Town,” Court said. “He’s the guy who sits back and has people do things for him. That’s the worst kind of criminal.”
Merced County suspects make first court appearances since massive gang sweep
Nearly a dozen defendants swept up in “Operation Scrapbook” – a series of dozens of gang raids coordinated by local, state and federal law enforcement that netted more than 50 arrests on Wednesday – made their first appearance Thursday in federal court to answer drug and weapons charges.
The 11 men appeared before Judge Stanley A. Boone to be assigned defense attorneys. The U.S. Attorney’s Office requested a detention hearing to determine whether the defendants should remain in custody or be released pending trial, according to Deb Duckett-Morris, secretary to U.S. Attorney Phillip Talbert.
Duckett-Morris told the Sun-Star a prosecutor requested the detention hearing be scheduled between Friday and Tuesday.
The criminal complaint unsealed this week in U.S. District Court names 11 men as defendants in the months-long investigation. Two of the defendants, 22-year-old Robert “Bubba” Guthrie and 28-year-old Prado “Termite” Andres Corona, of Hughson, have been charged with gun and drug trafficking, conspiracy, unlawfully possessing guns, and more, according to the complaint.
The complaint details more than a dozen controlled purchases of guns, drugs or both allegedly from Guthrie in Atwater and Winton. Guthrie’s mother, sister and girlfriend also were arrested in Wednesday’s raids, authorities said.
The complaint also describes an instance where Orasio “Acho” Fierro, 24, drove to Turlock and Modesto to meet and purchase drugs from a supplier.
On May 1, federal agents intercepted a package containing a 231 grams of methamphetamine inside of a Teddy bear intended for Francisco “Bouncer” Salgado, who was convicted of a stabbing in 2009, according to the complaint.
Prior to intercepting the package, agents listened to Salgado’s phone calls through wire taps where Salgado was told the drugs came “uncut” from Sinaloa and an associate who worked for the UPS could put them in the mail, the complaint says.
The complaint also names as a defendant Jose Rodriguez, and says he communicated with his brother Asuncion “Gato” or “Garfield” Rodriguez in jail. Asuncion was arrested and jailed in 2016 in connection to multiple Atwater shootings. At the time, police named him as a “ring leader” and “key player” in the town’s Sureño gang, Sun-Star archives show.
The complaint shows that investigators intercepted communication through Snapchat and Facebook accounts for Guthrie and several other suspects.
Merced Police Sgt. Rodney Court said high-tech intelligence drove the investigation.
Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II said since the arrests have been made, now the real work begins for his office.
Deputy District Attorneys Michael McKinney and Matthew Serratto have been working hard on the case since the arrest warrants were prepared, Morse said. Similar operations in the past, such as Operation Red Eye and Operation Red Right Hand, helped the prosecutors learn how to make the process more efficient.
Court said the goal is for many of those arrested Wednesday to do hard time.
“Our goal is to send people to state and federal prison for 25 years to life, not jail for 45 days,” he said.
Wednesday’s raids ended with more than 50 arrests and the recovery of 70 guns, 21,000 rounds of ammunition, 6.5 pounds of methamphetamine and more than $225,000.
What’s next for the case in this week’s massive gang take down in Merced?
Rob Parsons And Brianna Calix
Local and federal prosecutors will have to evaluate cases against dozens of suspects arrested in connection with raids on Wednesday in Merced County targeting “violent and high-ranking gang members associated (with) the Sureno criminal street gangs in Merced County,” according to a federal criminal complaint.
Hundreds of investigators raided dozens of Merced County homes seizing guns, drugs, and cash. More than 50 people were arrested in connection with the massive gang sweep, officials said.
The case was the result of months of investigation coordinated between numerous local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. Wednesday’s sweeps were a follow up to a nearly identical take down two years ago of Norteno street gangs in Merced County, dubbed “Operation Red Right Hand.”
More than 70 people were arrested in the May 2015 case, many of them considered to be leaders and mid-level players in the community’s black-market drug trade. According to a federal complaint filed in connection with the raids on Wednesday, Sureno gang members stepped up their activities after many of the Nortenos landed behind bars.
Wednesday’s raids, named “Operation Scrapbook,” sought to take out the Sureno gang members operating in connection with the Mexican Mafia who allegedly stepped in to fill the void after the Norteno take down.
Authorities described Wednesday’s raids as a massive success.
So what’s next for the dozens of cases stemming from the lengthy investigation?
Several of those arrested Wednesday already have been charged and are on their way to criminal prosecution in court. Nearly a dozen suspects have been charged with federal crimes, according to U.S. District court records.
They are expected to appear in court today in Fresno before Judge Stanley A. Boone to obtain defense attorneys. The U.S. Attorney’s Office will request a detention hearing to determine whether the defendants should remain in custody or be released pending trial, according to Deb Duckett-Morris, secretary to U.S. Attorney Phillip Talbert.
Duckett-Morris told the Sun-Star prosecutor will request the detention hearing be scheduled between today and Tuesday.
The criminal complaint unsealed this week in U.S. District Court names 11 men as defendants in the months-long investigation. Two of the defendants, 22-year-old Robert “Bubba” Guthrie and 28-year-old Andres Corona Prado have been charged with gun and drug trafficking, conspiracy, unlawfully possessing guns, and more, according to the complaint.
Undercover operations conducted stings beginning in January, purchasing firearms and narcotics on numerous occasions over several months, the complaint says.
This is a developing story. Check back with the Sun-Star for updates today.
Records show new details in this week’s massive gang raid in Merced County
Nearly half of those arrested in gang raids earlier this week in Merced County have been charged of crimes in local or federal court, records show.
Operation Scrapbook targeted Sureño gang members operating under the umbrella of the Mexican Mafia. Undercover work began months ago when confidential sources bought guns and drugs from local Sureño gang members’ whose communications on social media apps such as Snapchat and Facebook were being intercepted, according to court records.
The raids 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.
Of those charged, about a half dozen are believed to have been involved in four different shooting incidents, Deputy District Attorney Michael McKinney said.
Investigators also gathered additional information on six open homicide cases, District Attorney Larry Morse II said.
Warrants were served in multiple communities both in Merced and Stanislaus counties, including: Atwater, Winton, Merced, Hilmar, Stevinson, Delhi, Hughson, Modesto, Turlock and Oakdale, said Sgt. Rodney Court, who is with the Merced Area Gang and Narcotics Enforcement Team.
“Many of these guys, their livelihoods depends on being gangsters — selling guns and selling drugs,” Court said. “We put these people behind bars because they’re creating havoc in Merced County.”
Robert “Bubba” Guthrie, 22, has been described as one of the most influential leaders of the A-Town Locs Sureño street gang. He’s charged in federal court with drug and gun trafficking, selling drugs and possessing guns illegally.
Eleven others are named in the federal complaint: Andres Prado Corona, 28, of Hughson; Joseph Quirarte, 21, of Atwater; Francisco Salgado; Marcos Hernandez, 33, of Winton; Raul Hurtado; Orasio Fierro, 25, of Winton; Jose Rodriguez, 34, of Atwater; Zeb Stevens, 37, of Atwater; Vincent Williams, 28, of Winton; and Abraham Sagala.
Daniel Garcia of Oakdale, 21, also was included in the case, said Deb Duckett-Morris, secretary to U.S. Attorney Phillip Talbert. Garcia’s name was reported to the Sun-Star on Friday.
Fierro, Hurtado and Rodriguez entered not guilty pleas in federal court on Thursday, records show. Preliminary examinations for them were scheduled for May 25.
Guthrie also was charged in Merced County Superior Court on Friday for a March drive-by shooting in Winton. His co-defendents are Roberto Blancas-Morales, 19; Cesar Corona, 18; Joaquin Flores, 25; and Raul Rivera Perez, 18, court records show.
Flores also is charged with conspiracy to commit a crime. In March, Flores packaged marijuana and handed it off to someone who took the marijuana to Deuel Vocational Institution, a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation facility in Tracy, according to documents.
Joshua Lacey, a 35-year-old Atwater man, was charged in federal court on Friday for possession of an unregistered gun. In the federal complaint, investigators say they watched Lacey supply guns to Guthrie and Fierro, who then sold the guns to investigators’ confidential sources.
In an interview with investigators on Wednesday after his arrest, Lacey demonstrated he knew how to operate AR-style rifles. He admitted to selling an AR-15 to Fierro because he needed the extra money in a financially difficult time. He denied selling additional guns to Fierro and Guthrie, according to court records.
Jose Anthony Perez, 21, was charged with shooting at a car, assault with a gun, conspiracy, gang enhancements and street terrorism enhancements stemming from a 2014 shooting, records show.
Additional charges will be filed next week, McKinney said.
Many will be arraigned in federal court and Merced County Superior Court next week.
Multiple people arrested Wednesday have been bailed out of jail.
Office of California Attorney General
Attorney General Kamala D. Harris Announces 51 Arrests in Multi-State Drug Trafficking Bust
Contact: (415) 703-5837, firstname.lastname@example.org
MERCED -- Attorney General Kamala D. Harris today announced the arrest of 51 individuals associated with a Central Valley-based gang and narcotics trafficking organization and the seizure of methamphetamine, ecstasy, cocaine, marijuana and firearms.
“Drug traffickers have built sophisticated alliances and distribution networks that stretch across state and national borders that require a coordinated law enforcement response,” Attorney General Harris said. “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 51 defendants are charged with conspiracy, weapons violations, gang enhancements, and possession, transportation, distribution and sale of methamphetamine.
Today, over 200 agents executed arrest and search warrants in Merced County and, at the time of this release, made 41 arrests and seized 17 firearms, 300 ecstasy pills, 1.5 pounds of methamphetamine, 1.5 pounds of cocaine, 10.5 pounds of processed marijuana, 841 marijuana plants, 11 vehicles and $83,000 U.S. currency.
Over the course of the entire investigation, agents have now made 51 arrests, seized a total of 72.5 pounds of methamphetamine, 6 pounds of cocaine, 300 ecstasy pills, 10 marijuana growing operations, 20 firearms and $98,400 in U.S. currency.
“Today, through the incredible talent and effort of local, state and federal law enforcement personnel, we dealt a significant body blow to an organized crime cartel that has been trafficking substantial quantities of methamphetamine and cocaine throughout the Central Valley and across several states,” Merced County District Attorney Morse said. “Today’s raids and arrests will put a serious dent in the structure and activities of Norteño gangsters in Merced County operating with the Nuestra Familia Prison Gang. We will never relent in our efforts to destroy the revenue sources for these violent criminal street gangs that are such a plague in our communities.”
The United States Attorney's Office, Eastern District of California will prosecute the seven federal defendants who are in the custody of the United States Marshall's Office. The Merced County District Attorney’s Office will prosecute defendants facing state charges, who were booked into Merced County Jail and are currently being held on bail ranging from $1 million to $150,000.
Agents from the California Department of Justice’s Special Operations Unit (SOU) conducted an investigation into the Norteño criminal street gang in Merced County for distributing crystal methamphetamine and collecting taxes on behalf of the Nuestra Familia Prison Gang.
Separately, in September 2013, agents with the California Department of Justice’s Merced Multi-Agency Narcotic Task Force (MMNTF) began an investigation into the Luis Tejada-Hurtado drug trafficking organization (DTO) that initially resulted in the seizure of approximately 30 pounds of methamphetamine and two kilograms of cocaine from a vehicle with a hidden compartment and a storage locker used by the DTO. From that seizure, agents obtained additional information about several other associates of Hurtado, including Raul Recio and Larry Duncan. Agents recently seized 20 pounds of methamphetamine from Recio immediately after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Duncan is a known member of the criminal street gang ‘The Get Money Boys/Green Guys’ which operates out of Blytheville, Arkansas and Merced County.
In February 2014, SOU and MMNTF agents joined their investigations after they confirmed a link between the Hurtado DTO and Norteño gang. The investigation uncovered that members of the Hurtado DTO were directly supplying methamphetamine to the Norteño gangs in Merced County and Memphis, Tennessee.
Additional agencies and task forces that participated in today’s operation include: The California Department of Justice-Bureau of Investigation regional offices and task forces, Central Valley High Intensity Drug Trafficking task forces, Merced County Gang Task Force, Merced Police Department Gang Violence Suppression Unit, Merced County Sheriff’s Department, Merced County District Attorney’s Office, Atwater Police Department, Los Banos Police Department, Madera Special Investigations Unit, Kings County Gang Task Force, California Highway Patrol, Drug Enforcement Administration, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Homeland Security Investigations, United States Marshall’s Service and United States Attorney’s Office, Eastern District of California.
A March 2014 report issued by Attorney General Harris called the trafficking of methamphetamine from Mexico into California a growing threat to the state and a top priority for law enforcement. The report,Gangs Beyond Borders: California and the Fight Against Transnational Organized Crime, is the first comprehensive report analyzing the current state of transnational criminal organizations in California and the threats they pose to the state’s public safety and economy. The report also outlined recommendations to address this problem, which include increased funding for state anti-narcotics trafficking task forces and additional coordination between federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies in combatting transnational criminal organizations. The report is available here: https://oag.ca.gov/transnational-organized-crime.
Following the release of this report, Attorney General Harris led a delegation of state attorneys general to Mexico to strengthen working relationships between the governments of both countries and enhance efforts to combat transnational crime. The delegation met with Mexican state attorneys general and federal officials to discuss the issues of drug, human and firearms trafficking, money laundering and high-tech crime.
Attorney General Kamala D. Harris and the four other state attorneys general also signed a letter of intent with the National Banking and Securities Commission of Mexico to establish a bi-national working group on money laundering enforcement.