It was just before dawn on Christmas Day in 2016 when police found a man murdered at a home in San Juan Capistrano, California, authorities said.
That shooting death launched an investigation that brought together local and state law enforcement agencies. And while the murder remains unsolved, efforts to crack the case revealed a spiderweb of gang activity — leading to 85 gang arrests aimed at disrupting the Mexican mafia, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office said Wednesday. Authorities said the murder victim was associated with gang activity.
Orange County’s Sureños gang was the target of the arrests. The gang's criminal activity is directed by the Mexican mafia, California’s attorney general and local law enforcement said at a press conference in Santa Ana announcing the arrests.
“This is a reality we face: Criminal gang enterprises continue to prey on our community, and we have to do everything we can to fight back,” Orange County Undersheriff Don Barnes said.
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The 85 arrests included “middle management” and “foot soldiers” from gang operations in Orange and Los Angeles counties, officials said. The three-month investigation to nab the suspects — dubbed “Operation Scarecrow” — also led to the seizure of 25 handguns, four assault rifles, three shotguns, four rifles, 3 pounds of heroin, more than 14 pounds of meth, counterfeit money, two stolen vehicles and about $40,000 in currency, according to the sheriff’s office.
But Barnes said those arrests and seizures “are just a drop in the bucket compared to the widespread control that the Mexican mafia has over gang activity throughout southern California.” Only several hundred people are actual members of the Mexican mafia, “but they control the traditional Hispanic criminal street gangs within the state,” Barnes said.
The gang members operate inside and outside of the state's prison system, Barnes said. And while 85 arrests might be disruption, those suspects represent only a fraction of a broader criminal enterprise, authorities said.
“This isn’t over,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said. “It’s another step in ... trying to break down some of these criminal gang activities we see going on across the state.”
Authorities said no informants were involved in the investigation.
One reporter at the press conference noted that roughly half of the 85 suspects arrested appeared to be women.
“They call them secretaries,” Barnes said, describing the women’s role in the gangs as intermediaries. “They get the information, they distribute it back and forth.”
Orange County prosecutors have filed charges (including for conspiracy, forgery, fraud, and weapons and drug crimes) in 31 cases, authorities said. Two charges have been filed in Los Angeles.
The investigation and other work between Orange County and state law enforcement are the largest gang crackdown in California this year, according to the attorney general’s office. Authorities said the gang crackdown helped prevent five violent crimes, including two attempted murders.
And the sheriff's office said it hasn't forgotten about what started it all.
“We’re hoping to have that murder solved soon,” Barnes said Wednesday.