In the News

Eight Sureno gang members busted during Operation Groundhog in Watsonville already convicted, four sent to state prison

Tuesday May 11, 2010
By The Santa Cruz Sentinel

The Santa Cruz Sentinel, May 11, 2010

Eight Sureno gang members busted during Operation Groundhog in Watsonville already convicted, four sent to state prison


WATSONVILLE -- Four of the gang members arrested during Operation Groundhog, a year-long Watsonville police investigation into a violent Sureno street gang, already have been sentenced to state prison, District Attorney Bob Lee said Monday.

Another four have been convicted of charges and sentenced to local jail time or probation, according to Lee.

In total, 45 suspected Poorside gang members were arrested during the probe while two others are wanted, according to Watsonville police.

Gang investigators said they targeted Poorsiders after seeing an increasing number of violent acts linked to the gang, believed to be the largest Sureno gang in Watsonville with about 200 members. Watsonville Police Chief Manny Solano said the gang is responsible for at least 10 violent incidents -- drive-by shootings, assaults, armed robberies and stabbings -- in the past year.

"Gangs are the No. 1 problem we have in this county," Lee said.

Added Solano: "Because gangs respect no boundaries, we too respect no boundaries."

While there are more Norteno gang members in Watsonville than Surenos, police went after the Southerners because recent gang operations in Watsonville and the region -- such as Operation Red Bull in September 2007 and Operation Knockout in Salinas last month -- targeted Northerners.

Poorside Watsonville members were getting more violent and doing "real brazen things," Solano said.

Using informants and other investigative tactics, a team of five Watsonville police officers went after the gang's leadership and most active members. As the operation grew, police sought assistance from the FBI, the District Attorney's Office and the county's Anti-Crime Team. Some Watsonville police officers were even deputized as federal agents and put on the FBI payroll during the investigation, Solano said.
"This investigation is really just the end result of organizations working together for a common goal ... fighting gangs," Lee said.

They called the probe "Operation Groundhog" because they didn't want gang members to know where police would pop up next, according to Solano. During the final days of the investigation, police served search warrants in Watsonville, the rural areas surrounding the city, even on the Santa Cruz's Westside.

Officers seized 18 guns, seven of which had been reported stolen, as well as brass knuckles, a butterfly knife, shanks, heroin and methamphetamine during the operation. Police filled tables with the recovered weapons during a press conference Monday afternoon.

Gesturing at the pile of guns, Watsonville Mayor Luis Alejo said, "We all know these guns that are here before us represent lives saved."

The guns had been stolen during car break-ins and home burglaries. Some of the suspected gang members were arrested for allegedly trafficking firearms, something Solano characterized as small-time selling or trading among the gang, not gun smuggling.

The results of ballistic tests that could link the rifles, shotguns, revolvers and semi-automatic pistols to violent crimes are pending.

The operation stretched out for more than a year, in part, to reduce personnel costs for police and attorneys involved in the investigation, Lee said. His office did not rack up any overtime hours handling the cases, Lee said, and Watsonville police kept their costs to a minimum, according to Solano.

To date, eight people have been convicted, Lee said.

In the most severe case to date, Victor de la Torre, 19 was convicted of a gang-related assault and will serve 10 years in state prison.

Angel Magana, 20, was convicted of gang participation and gun possession. He is serving a two-year state prison sentence. Jose Gonzalez was convicted of gang participation, conspiracy to commit assault and evading police. A judge sent him to state prison for five years, according to Lee.

Jesus Rocha Zamora, 19, was convicted of gang participation and served a 270-day jail sentence. Francisco Nova, 30, was convicted of possessing drugs for sale and served a 180-day County Jail sentence, according to Lee.

Jose Guadalupe Raya, 18, admitted a probation violation and is serving a 93-day jail sentence. Juan Garcia, 32, and Rudy Cobos, 52, each were convicted of possessing drugs and sentenced to a Prop. 36 drug-treatment program. They are out of police custody, Lee said.

Ricardo Fernandez, 18, was convicted of gang participation and conspiracy to commit assault. He is awaiting sentencing, but already has agreed to serve four years in state prison, Lee said.

Honorato Rincon, 31, was convicted of gang participation and gun possession. He was sentenced to 270 days in County Jail, which he is serving, and also is one of four men arrested who have immigration holds on their cases. Federal authorities are reviewing the immigration status of Rincon and the three other suspected illegal immigrants. It's possible they will be deported once their local cases are adjudicated, Lee said.

Among the 45 arrests, two suspected gang members are juveniles. Also, 22 of the men arrested face strikes, which means their offenses could carry longer prison sentences if convicted, Lee said.

"Those cases give us a lot more leverage," he said.

At least four suspected gang members will be in court this week for preliminary hearings, Lee said.

There are cases pending against other suspects, according to Watsonville Deputy Police Chief Rudy Escalante. In total, 51 alleged gang members were identified during Operation Groundhog, he said.

Still, police acknowledged that the culmination of Operation Groundhog does not signal the end of gang violence in Watsonville.

"We recognize this isn't going to solve everything," Solano said.

He, Lee and others from the justice system were meeting Monday afternoon to discuss their next collaboration. Before the day was over, suspected gang members shot a laborer on the Pajaro River levee during a botched robbery.