Federal officials using an army of 750 officers rounded up dozens of suspects in Northern California, Pennsylvania and Oregon early Wednesday to disrupt what they described as a massive street and prison gang conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin using social media.
Authorities targeted prison gang leaders – and arrested two inmates already serving time inside Pelican Bay State Prison – and swept up a number of suspected members of Varrio Bosque Norteno, a Norteno-affiliated street gang known as “VBN” that is based in Woodland.
“This organization has been a major violent crime problem in Woodland and surrounding communities for years,” McGregor Scott, U.S. attorney for the Sacramento-based Eastern District of California, said in a news conference. “In one fell swoop, we have indicted persons connected to that organization from the street level to the state prison level.”
Agents served 39 federal search warrants and conducted another 30 parole and probation searches on suspects throughout 10 Northern California counties, as well as in Oregon and Pennsylvania. Officials said at least 18 people who had been indicted earlier in the yearlong investigation were arrested Wednesday, and that 11 additional suspects were detained during the raids. Two others were arrested in Pennsylvania and Oregon.
Authorities also seized 34 weapons, more than $71,000 in cash, several hundred pounds of marijuana and 52 empty bottles of codeine syrup, Scott said.
Officials say members of the street gang were involved in a conspiracy with prison gang leaders who used cellphones smuggled into prisons to coordinate their activities.
Among those indicted were Pelican Bay inmates Patrick Botello, 31, and Ricardo Villa, 39, who are charged with conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and heroin and use of a communication facility to further a drug trafficking offense.
The latter charge, also leveled at other defendants, involves their alleged use of social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook – but primarily Snapchat – to sell methamphetamine and other drugs, officials say.
“The inmates at Pelican Bay were involved in commanding regiments or street gangs similar to VBN, or in this case VBN, in criminal activities in the community of Woodland and throughout Northern California,” said Derrick Marion, chief of the Office of Correctional Safety inside the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
The investigation, which began with the discovery of a cellphone smuggled into California State Prison, Solano, followed leads taken from the phone and eventually led to wiretap surveillance of social media accounts, officials say.
Defendants include individuals with past drug convictions and for possession of weapons ranging from a .357-caliber handgun to a shotgun to a semiautomatic assault rifle, court records state.
Scott said the effort stems from directives by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to do more to assist local and state agencies in combating crime.
“This is a textbook example of that,” Scott said.