A former gang leader who authored the peace treaty recently signed by rival Orange County gangs was arrested Friday by federal drug agents as part of a major ongoing investigation involving narcotics and money laundering.
The DEA declined to discuss the case, but sources familiar with the investigation confirmed that Art Romo, 30, of Santa Ana was among those being held on suspicion of money laundering.
Romo's common-law wife, Leticia Rivera, 26, said a few hours after the arrest that she did not know why Romo was taken into custody. Law enforcement officials "wouldn't tell me anything, they just said it was something big," she said.
Rivera said Romo was arrested at about 10 a.m. near the intersection of Bristol and Segerstrom Streets at a fast food restaurant where he had taken their two toddlers for breakfast. She said she learned of the arrest when police called her to pick up the children.
"Whatever they picked him up for, if they wanted him, he's always by himself," Rivera said. "Why pick him up with the kids?"
Romo is one of five founders of the United Gangs Council, a group of former neighborhood gang leaders which has met regularly since January with hundreds of gang members to forge a tenuous truce.
Regarded as a key council leader, Romo was one of three council members who met privately with Cardinal Roger M. Mahony earlier this month to exchange ideas on how to reduce gang-related deaths and violence in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
Whenever there is talk on the street of an expected gang confrontation, Romo is one of the leaders called on most often to step in and prevent violence, council members said during recent interviews.
Santa Ana attorney Alfredo Amezcua, who has acted as an unofficial legal and political adviser to the group, said he did not want to comment until he could receive more details of Romo's arrest.
Karen Ojeda, who works with the gangs council and is the wife of council president Pete Ojeda, said she did not have any information on the arrest but felt certain the incident would not hurt the council's campaign for peace.
"Whatever problem he has has nothing to do with the drive-by shootings. Nobody shot him and he didn't shoot nobody," she said. Romo "does a lot of good for the gangs. He knows a lot of the guys and he gets along with everybody."
Council leader Glbert Gonzalez said he had not heard of Romo's arrest, and other top council members could not be reached for comment.
Santa Ana officials have acknowledged a decrease in gang-related incidents in recent months, but in August, the number of deaths surpassed the 13 homicides that were attributed to gangs during 1991.
While publicly commending all efforts to curb gang activities, City Hall's relationship with the United Gangs Council has remained distant, with City Council members only partially buying into a gang prevention plan that the group proposed this summer.
City officials have privately expressed concern that not all of Orange County's gangs have agreed to respect the truce, and most of the leaders of the United Gangs Council have lengthy, and recent, criminal histories.
Four of the five council leaders, including two who met with the cardinal, have spent a total of 70 years in federal and state prisons on convictions ranging from drug dealing to a gang-related homicide.
Romo is the only one of the five who has not served state or federal prison sentences. He was jailed locally several years ago for four months on a minor drug offense.
In an recent interview, the gang council leader said he came up with the idea of having rival gang members sign a peace treaty that would codify verbal pledges they had made since January.
The treaty, signed in August, was written on a large poster board and read in part: "To gain our communities' trust and support we must change our violent ways. Our word is the only good thing we have to make this work."
DEA officials said the details of the investigation, which included numerous arrests, would be announced Monday.
Santa Ana Police Lt. Robert Helton said he knew nothing of the federal investigation and declined further comment because local police were not involved in the case. The Police Department, he said, simply provided a patrol car "for the purposes of a traffic stop" to facilitate the arrest.