Agents from 16 local, state and federal agencies raided 50 Central Valley locations on Tuesday in a sudden gang sweep targeting the Nuestra Familia prison gang, which law enforcement claims controls most of Central California’s Norteños street gangs and has ties to Mexican drug cartels. The raids resulted in the arrest of 75 people on suspicion of drug trafficking, weapons offenses and attempted murder.

In addition to the arrests, law enforcement seized unspecified amounts of crack cocaine and methamphetamine, along with marijuana plants, five assault rifles and several other firearms, and $64,000 in cash. It is not clear whether the amount of drugs seized was large, but it seems unlikely that the seizure represents the majority of a drug trafficking gang’s production.

Agents, including helicopter and canine units, swept in on 50 separate locations in Madera, Los Baños, Livingston, Merced, Atwater and Dos Palos, claiming that the bold raid was necessary in order to protect rural Central Valley communities from gang violence.

“Their conduct was terrorizing this community,” said California’s attorney general during a news conference, “and by extension, their conduct was bleeding through the whole state of California.”

The identities of those accused were not specified, except that two people suspected to be senior Nuestra Familia regiment commanders were among those arrested. “Operation Red Zone,” of which this raid was a part, began in August of last year and has resulted in the arrest of 101 people. According to the Attorney General, his office’s Fresno Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement performed daily surveillance on those believed to be leaders of the gang.

The Los Angeles Times did not report on what evidence was used to justify raiding so many locations and arresting so many people, most of whom could not possibly be among the gang’s leadership if they are guilty of anything at all.

Law enforcement concedes that dramatic gang sweep may only increase violent gang activity

Unfortunately, law enforcement representatives admit that the mass arrests could create a power vacuum in the region’s gang economy. Large gang sweeps have in the past merely driven the violence from one area to another as rival gangs took the opportunity to increase their territory.

According to law enforcement, the Nuestra Familia gang was started in 1968 at Folsom Prison and continues to operate out of the prison system. Its main rival gang, police claim, is La Eme, also referred to as the Mexican Mafia. Nuestra Familia is suspected of having 100 members in the state prison system who communicate with street gangs through coded messages and packages.

Without more concrete information about the evidence, it is impossible to tell whether the 75 people arrested were actively involved in drug trafficking or were merely small-time operators, drug users or people who happened to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys and juries will have months of work ahead of them as the charges against each individual are sorted out.

Source: Los Angeles Times, “Suspected gang leaders arrested in Central Valley sweep,” Maura Dolan, June 9, 2011