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22 arrested, guns seized in vast gang sweep across Southland

Times Staff Writer

In a major sweep across Southern California, law enforcement officials targeting some of Los Angeles’ most notorious gangs raided 41 locations Thursday, arresting 22 suspects on firearms, narcotics and counterfeiting charges.

More than 500 federal and local law enforcement officials were involved in the sweep, which was the culmination of a two-year undercover operation conducted by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The raids targeted five cliques of the notorious Crips gang, including the Rollin’ 60s, as well as the 55th, 57th, 58th and 59th Street Neighborhood Crips.

“Violence and gun trafficking and drug dealing are the main ingredients of this gang’s criminal lifestyle,” said Special Agent in Charge John Torres of the ATF’s Los Angeles office. “They preyed on those with addictions, they preyed on those who were defenseless, and they preyed on those who were weaker than them, for their own selfish gain ... today is a very bad day to be a Neighborhood Crip.”

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The sweep is the first major effort by federal authorities since the U.S. Justice Department announced a partnership earlier this year with Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton to crack down on gang crime, which rose last year in the city.

The operation highlighted a new strategy by authorities to focus cases on higher-level gang leaders and to try to build criminal complaints around gun-related charges, which carry stiff sentences. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the LAPD have been tracing guns used in crimes to their original sources.

One suspect had to be forced from an apartment in the 1200 block of West 88th Street after a two-hour standoff. SWAT officers fired gas canisters through the windows to pressure the man to surrender, police said.

Merlene Viola Blahak, who lives in the apartment, said she was awakened about 4:30 a.m. when police aimed bright lights into the unit and ordered everyone out. She said the man who was arrested had recently been staying with her family but that she was unaware of his alleged involvement with any gangs.

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“When he didn’t come out they trashed my house,” she said. “They shot holes in windows [with the gas canisters]. I can’t go back because of the gas,” she said.

Torres said evidence gathered during the investigation has also aided pending murder and shooting investigations.

“We think we’ve pretty much decimated this gang” operation, he said.

Most of the arrests were made in South Los Angeles, where officials said the various Neighborhood Crips cliques operate. The Rollin’ 60s have operated in South Los Angeles for decades. The LAPD is targeting 11 gangs after gang-related crimes increased across the city in 2006.

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“These gangs terrified these neighborhoods,” LAPD Deputy Chief Charlie Beck said.

Federal indictments for seven reputed gang leaders, known on the streets as “gang shot callers,” are slated to be unsealed today when they appear before a magistrate, officials said.

During the probe, investigators recovered or purchased 28 firearms, including handguns, shotguns, assault weapons and sawed-off shotguns. They also confiscated 147 rounds of ammunition and 1,834 grams of crack cocaine.

On Thursday, agents seized more firearms and recovered more than $46,000 in cash and about $1,000 in counterfeit currency.

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The raids come three weeks after ATF officers arrested two men on federal charges of illegally selling firearms from a Compton gun store where 3,390 firearms were seized.

Local and federal officers from agencies across Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties participated in the arrests, which took place in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties.

Four other suspects were already in custody, and 11 remain at large. Several members of other gangs also were arrested in the sweep.

Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry said her office receives daily complaints about the activity of these gangs in her district.

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“I consider today to be significant headway in delivering a very strong message to the people we represent: that we believe in you and we will fight for you,” she said. “We will not give up on anybody’s community.”

richard.winton@latimes.com


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