By BRIAN MELLEY
LOS ANGELES (AP) - More than two dozen suspected members of a gang that terrorized a housing project for a half century and controlled drug dealing in an East Los Angeles neighborhood were arrested Wednesday on charges related to a federal racketeering indictment.
The indictment named 38 members of the Big Hazard gang with ties to the Mexican Mafia who authorities say are linked to crimes ranging from drug dealing to extortion to murder.
"For the last two decades, my office has been fighting the influence of the Mexican Mafia both in prison facilities and on the streets of Southern California," Acting U.S. Attorney Stephanie Yonekura said at a news conference. "The indictment unsealed today is the latest salvo in that battle. We will continue our crackdown on the Mexican Mafia and the Hazard gang as long as they continue to threaten our communities."
The Mexican Mafia is a powerful collection of prison inmates from various Latino gangs who call shots on violence behind bars and drug dealing and crime on the streets.
The FBI and Los Angeles police led early morning raids, dubbed "Operation Resident Evil," at more than a dozen homes. They nabbed 24 of those named in the indictment, along with four others charged with crimes related to the gang.
Seven people, including the gang's leader, were already in custody. One defendant was killed in a shooting over the weekend that is being investigated.
The arrests culminated a four-year investigation that began after a car crash and shooting on Interstate 10.
Police searching the car, which belonged to a suspected drug dealer, found letters written in code from Manuel Larry Jackson, a Hazard gang member serving time at a super maximum-security federal prison in Colorado for bank robbery and attempting to kill another inmate.
When authorities discovered Jackson, a member of the Mexican Mafia who headed the Hazard gang, was about to be released from prison, they launched a task force to look into the gang, said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for federal prosecutors. Once released, Jackson was snared in a separate investigation involving the Mexican Mafia and its connection to the La Familia drug cartel in Mexico.
Jackson, 51, also known as "Cricket," is being held on charges related to distributing methamphetamine. His lawyer declined to comment on the new charges.
Each defendant faces sentences ranging from 10 years to life without parole, if convicted.
Believed to have about 350 members, the Big Hazard gang is headquartered in the Ramona Gardens housing project and got its start in the 1940s, the indictment said. It took its name from nearby Hazard Park.
The gang's main source of revenue came from dealing methamphetamine, crack cocaine and heroin and controlling the drug trade in Boyle Heights, a largely Latino neighborhood just east of downtown.
It collected "rent" from other dealers operating in the area, keeping some of that money and paying some as "taxes" to the Mexican Mafia.
All of the gang's activities were enforced through intimidation, with members threatening and following through with violence against rivals, law abiding citizens and even fellow gang members who cooperated with police, Yonekura said.
In one instance, the gang extorted money from a family that had allowed police to search their garage for a gang suspect.
The gang used lookouts, surveillance cameras and guns to protect their operations and filed bogus complaints against police officers to get them transferred to other areas, according to the indictment.
Agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives displayed more than a dozen guns seized during the raids, including semi-automatic rifles and handguns, a .44 Magnum revolver and a gun disguised as a pen.
While the indictment said the gang was responsible for murders, it didn't specify how many.
Authorities at the news conference didn't have that figure, though Deputy Los Angeles Police Chief Kirk Albanese said the gang was "responsible for a lot of death and carnage over the years."