Ten alleged gang members arrested in Santa Cruz, Watsonville and Daly City on Monday have been charged with offenses including drug trafficking and conspiracy to commit extortion by force, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
A federal grand jury on Monday indicted seven of the men for conspiring to extort drug dealers and three for conspiring to traffic methamphetamine.
The suspects are allegedly members of Santa Cruz Salvatrucha Locos 13, a subset of the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) gang, according to court papers filed by the government Monday.
After a five-year federal investigation, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security along with police from Santa Cruz, Watsonville, Santa Clara and Daly City arrested the alleged gang members at homes in Santa Cruz County and Daly City starting around 4 a.m. Monday.
More than 200 local and federal law enforcement officers participated in the early morning arrests.
Velarmino “Meduza” Escobar Ayala, Tomas “Profugo” or “Caballo” Rivera, Ismael “Casper” Alvarenga Rivera, Willfredo “Chino” Edgardo Ayala, Jose David “Largo” Abrego Galdamez, Melvin “Sharky” Lopez and Alexander “Pocar” Martinez Flores are facing extortion charges, prosecutors said.
According to the indictment, the seven men had conspired to threaten Santa Cruz drug dealers and those close to them with violence in order to take their property.
If convicted, the defendants face a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Gerber “Choco” Morales, Emilio “Diablo” Escobar Abarnga and Josue Alcedis “Penguino” Escobar Cerritos allegedly conspired to engage in drug trafficking, prosecutors said.
Since March 2015, the three men conspired to possess with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of a substance containing a detectable amount of meth.
Members of Santa Cruz’s immigrant community expressed widespread alarm at the action, which involved Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, given recent ICE raids in Southern California and elsewhere around the country, according to University of California at Santa Cruz sociologist Paul Johnston.
Santa Cruz police responded to the concerns by releasing a statement Monday evening emphasizing that the raids were part of the long-term investigation into the gang rather than any sort of immigration or deportation action.
Police said in the statement:
“The Santa Cruz Police Department is extraordinarily aware of the fear that exists in our community regarding immigration raids.”
“This operation was not associated with enforcement of federal immigration nor deportation investigations. The City of Santa Cruz and the Santa Cruz Police Department does not and will not participate in immigration enforcement or arrests…The men arrested during today’s operation were all members of a violent criminal organization that has preyed upon and threatened the community.”
All 10 defendants made appearances before U.S. Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins on Monday.
If convicted, the defendants accusing of conspiring to commit extortion face a maximum sentence of 20 years and prison and a $250,000 fine.
Those convicted of conspiracy to possess 50 grams or more of methamphetamine with the intent to distribute it face a maximum of 40 years in prison and a $5 million fine, prosecutors said.