Last defendant sentenced in meth case

A Madera man on Monday was the last of seven defendants sentenced in a federal investigation into methamphetamine sales, the office of U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner announced.

Rafael Velasco, 36, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill to 14 years in prison for conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine, according to a news release from Wagner’s office.

The other defendants sentenced in the case were:

• Gonzalo Esquivel, 34, of Los Banos, sentenced to 15 years and five months in prison on Nov. 4.

• Efren Steve Jiminez, 33, of Los Banos, sentenced to 10 years in prison on Nov. 4.

• Kenneth Hernandez, 30, of Dos Palos, sentenced to 12 years and four months in prison on Dec. 2.

• Gustavo Moreno, 33, of Madera, sentenced to 12 years and four months in prison on Sept. 23.

• David Torres, 33, of Madera, sentenced to 10 years in prison on Sept. 23.

• Juan Herrera, aka “Joker,” of Madera, sentenced to 16 years in prison on Nov. 1.

According to court documents, the defendants were members or associates of the Norteño criminal street gang, which is under the control of the Nuestra Familia prison gang. Nuestra Familia uses the Norteños to engage in narcotics sales, the release said.

Esquivel, Jiminez and Hernandez had admitted selling about 2 ounces of the drug to Moreno and Torres, according to prosecutors. Most of the men were arrested during Operation Red Zone, the largest gang sweep in Merced County history. The June 2011 operation was conducted by agents on 31 teams who served 72 arrest warrants at more than 50 locations on charges ranging from attempted murder to drug trafficking.

“The collaboration of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies in this case was outstanding,” Wagner said in the release. “Together, we have removed seven dangerous criminals from our neighborhoods for many years to come. The sentencing of Rafael Velasco concludes this case, but our collective efforts to root out and prosecute violent gang members who traffic in narcotics in the Central Valley continue to be vigorous.”

According to court documents, Velasco provided Herrera with an eighth of an ounce of methamphetamine to be included in a “package” to be delivered to individuals being held at the Madera County jail. On June 7, 2011, Velasco carried a Glock 9 mm model 19 pistol and about 1 ounce of methamphetamine in a lunch bag to his car. He was arrested within minutes of doing so, and the gun and methamphetamine were seized by law enforcement agents, the release said.

This case was the product of an investigation by the California Department of Justice Bureau of Investigation in coordination with the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Madera Narcotic Enforcement Team, the Merced Multi-Agency Narcotics Task Force, the Merced Multi-Agency Gang Task Force, the Los Banos Police Department, the Merced Police Department, the Madera Police Department, the Madera County Sheriff’s Office and the Livingston Police Department.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kimberly A. Sanchez prosecuted the case.