Residents speak out to Watsonville City Council
SANTA CRUZ COUNTY — The Department of Homeland Security released the name of 10 alleged gang members Tuesday who were arrested throughout Santa Cruz County and Daly City during early-morning raids Monday.
A federal grand jury indicted the men for conspiring to commit extortion by force and conspiring to engage in drug trafficking following an intensive five-year probe by special agents with Homeland Security Investigations.
According to the indictment unsealed Monday, seven of the defendants conspired to extort drug dealers while the other three defendants conspired to engage in trafficking methamphetamine, according to a press release from Homeland Security.
The defendants charged with extortion are Velarmino "Meduza" Escobar-Ayala, Tomas "Profugo" Rivera, Ismael "Casper" Alvarenga-Rivera, Willfredo "Chino" Edgardo-Ayala, Jose David "Largo" Abrego-Galdamez, Melvin "Sharky" Lopez and Alexander "Pocar" Martinez-Flores.
The indictment alleges the men conspired to obtain property from drug dealers in Santa Cruz by threatening violence against the dealers and other people close to them. It further alleged the defendants planned to engage in the extortion by threatening force, violence, and fear to obtain money they had demanded.
The indictment also alleges the three remaining defendants, Gerber "Choco" Morales, Emilio "Diablo" Escobar-Albarnga and Josue Alcedis "Penguino" Escobar-Cerritos, were engaged in a drug trafficking conspiracy. According to court documents, from March 2015 until the present, the three defendants conspired to possess and distribute 50 grams or more of a substance containing a detectable amount of methamphetamine.
Court papers filed Monday by the government state that the charges stem from a multi-year investigation into the activities of a violent Santa Cruz street gang known as Santa Cruz Salvatrucha Locos 13, or SCSL13. Court documents state that “SCSL13 is a subset of the larger Mara Salvatrucha 13, or MS-13, gang organization.” The government alleges the defendants are all either active members or recruits performing criminal tasks on behalf of SCSL13.
The defendants were arrested Monday morning as part of a multi-agency operation led by HSI that included more than 200 local and federal law enforcement personnel. The coordinated arrests and searches took place in Santa Cruz, Watsonville and Daly City.
The defendants made their initial appearance Monday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins. The extortion conspiracy count is punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The charge related to the distribution of methamphetamine carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison, a maximum prison term of 40 years, and a fine of up to $5 million.
In response to Monday's raids, a group of people voiced their concerns to the Watsonville City Council during an open comment period Tuesday night.
On Jan. 24, the city council reaffirmed Watsonville's status as a sanctuary city. Passed unanimously, the resolution, among other things, states that no city resources may be used to enforce federal immigration law.
But some people who spoke Tuesday night sought clarity on what the resolution means.
Paulina Moreno, Deferred Action Services coordinator for the Community Action Board, said the city needs to hold more "know your rights" forums and provide additional legal services.
"Yesterday's events caused extreme anxiety and fear among our community," she said. "There's still a lot of uncertainty on just what happened."
Jenny Sarmiento of the Santa Cruz County Women's Action Group shared a similar sentiment.
"Our workforce in Watsonville relies heavily on immigrants, documented and undocumented," she said.
Rachel Ellis of the Community Action Board said the community is living in fear.
"There are a lot of neighbors and a lot of families that are afraid to go outside, afraid to take their kids to school, because they are afraid they are going to get deported," she said.
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