A task force of local police and federal agents has dealt a serious blow to a Santa Ana street gang that ran a drug business from a poor, densely populated neighborhood, officials said Friday.
A 10-month investigation into alleged gang activity in the Bishop Manor apartment complex in the city’s southeast side ended early Thursday with a raid by Santa Ana police and federal authorities on about a dozen units. Eighteen suspects were arrested and 33 firearms, including 10 assault weapons, were seized.
Photos of the arrestees and weapons were displayed Friday at a news conference at Santa Ana police headquarters. A bolt-action SKS carbine with a foldaway bayonet -- popular with communist troops in Vietnam -- was among the weapons confiscated.
The suspects, some with purported ties to the Minnie Street Lopers gang, will be tried in federal court. Twenty-two people were named in a complaint filed by the U.S. attorney’s office; three are fugitives and one was already in custody on an unrelated charge.
“The main advantage in federal court is that we have mandatory minimum sentences,” said Assistant U.S. Atty. Terri Flynn. “When you get in a gang atmosphere, we have a bigger hammer to strike with.”
Officers said they seized various types of narcotics, with an estimated street value of $314,000, nine vehicles and $140,000 in “monetary assets.”
Santa Ana Councilwoman Claudia Alvarez, who is also an Orange County deputy district attorney, said the apartment complex -- 41 buildings with 164 units and 1,307 residents -- is one of 10 hot spots of gang activity in the city.
The apartments, occupied mostly by Latino and Cambodian families, are on Bishop Street near Standard Avenue. The area “has long been a troubled community requiring a disproportional level of police and city services,” officials said.
On Friday, several residents at the complex said drug dealing, not violence, is the problem. Most welcomed the arrests and complained about groups of young men who hang out all night, sometimes by bonfires, at the outer edges of the complex selling drugs to buyers who cruise by.
Residents said heavily armed police officers and agents from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives stormed the complex about 5 a.m. Thursday.
The family of Armando Vera, 26, said officers looking for drugs threw three flash-bang grenades into their two-bedroom apartment and broke a Winnie the Pooh bank he had used to save change and bills for about nine years. Vera’s brother, who asked not to be identified because he did not want to attract police attention, said officers took the bills but left the change when they took Armando Vera into custody.
Officials said Vera has no criminal record but is suspected of being “second in command” of the street gang, allegedly headed by another brother, Salvador, who was also arrested.
In addition to Vera’s money, police seized the family’s cellphones, a laptop, two cameras and a truck, family members said. They said officers also pulled up plants in front of the residence in search of drugs but found none.
Vera “graduated from high school and went to school to became an air conditioning technician,” his brother said. “He works and pays taxes and has nothing to do with gangs.” 24, and searched the apartment for drugs. She said none were found but police took a cellphone and Higareda’s bank statement, along with his $3,000 income tax refund he had been saving. Higareda worked in an electronics plant and was laid off in April, she said.
“They broke our aquarium and killed our fish, looking for drugs,” she said.
According to the criminal complaint, Higareda is a “narcotics dealer.”
Santa Ana police spokesman Anthony Bertagna said Higareda’s and Vera’s families should register any complaints about police conduct with the department. But he said the department’s “stance is that our officers acted in a professional manner.”