Fifteen people linked to the violent MS-13 international criminal gang were arrested Thursday, and dozens of others were detained after a monthslong investigation into multiple murders and other shootings in Santa Maria.
“Operation Matador” involved serving search and arrest warrants before dawn at multiple locations in Santa Maria, elsewhere in California and out of state, police Chief Ralph Martin said during an afternoon news conference at the Santa Maria Police Department station.
In all, 15 people were arrested and 40 others detained in the efforts that involved multiple law enforcement agencies and close to 150 officers.
“All of those arrested are from El Salvador or Honduras, all are members of MS-13 — Mara Salvatrucha — a notoriously brutal, organized transnational gang,” Martin said.
MS-13 reportedly has 50,000 members in 40 states, the chief said.
“The city of Santa Maria, and I know I speak for other cities here, will no longer be a city where MS-13 or any other street gang can live or engage in a career criminal enterprise,” Martin added. “We know who they are, we know where they are, what vehicles they drive, who they associate with. We know what they had for lunch yesterday.
“This is only the beginning of our attempt to continue our efforts to completely, unequivocally eradicate this organized group from existing in Santa Maria,” he said.
A spike in homicides, with a significant increase within the past six months, led local detectives to enlist a task force approach to solve the crimes while using thorough forensic analysis instead of reviewing each individually.
“This turned out to be very fruitful,” Martin said, adding that investigators sought help from federal agents and others in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties.
Detectives identified several suspects believed to be involved in the crimes, securing arrest and search warrants served at 12 locations at 3 a.m. Thursday.
Those warrants were simultaneously served at eight locations in Santa Maria, two in the Bakersfield area, one in Oxnard and one in Columbus, Ohio.
In addition to solving some crimes, the chief believes the investigators prevented other killings.
“I need to mention that during this investigation, at least six additional homicides were prevented in the past four weeks,” the chief said. “This was due to the incredible work by the investigative team and their swift actions to protect the targeted victims before the hit was done.”
MS-13 in Santa Maria
MS-13 apparently moved into the Santa Maria area within the past two years “to make a statement” as they attempted to “own the town,” the chief added.
“They’re very organized. They’re obviously in the drug trade and other things. They came to Santa Maria to set up shop,” Martin added.
Those arrested include some people considered leaders in the MS-13 gang, he added.
“This case stretched all the way back to Columbus, Ohio. That’s the reach these people have,” he said.
Martin did not identify which local homicides the suspects are connected to, saying it’s too premature. However, he did say that almost all of the people targeted were other gang members.
“The public should know that what you see up here is a collaborative effort that we’re not going to give up — whether it’s Oscar Joaquin or Brayan Molina-Mejia or any of our victims — that we’re not going to rest,” Martin added.
Several of the killings in recent months have similar hallmarks that made them appear to be linked to MS-13, instead of one of the local gangs tied to the Sureños.
“The two known street gangs in Santa Maria are actually attributed to one or two of the homicides, but the vast majority of the homicides we’ve had, we believe, are being committed by MS-13,” Martin said.
Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown noted the detailed investigation conducted over many months required before Thursday’s arrests.
Despite the massive effort — with arrests at multiple locations while securing evidence and detaining up to 40 others — the operation occurred without any incidents or use of force, Brown said, calling it “a remarkable feat.”
“This incident exemplifies the precision and professionalism that occurs out there 98 percent of the time,” Brown said. “The skill with which this operation was conducted is extraordinary.”
Brown also had a message for criminal street gang members who go to Santa Barbara County to commit the type of heinous crimes that started the investigation.
“Look behind me. Notice that we don’t stand alone in this county when it comes to investigating, identifying, hunting down, arresting and bringing before the bar of justice those who would commit these types of evil deeds in any jurisdiction within Santa Barbara County,” Brown said. “So let that be a warning to anybody who’s thinking or contemplating anything like this in the future.”
San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson noted his jurisdiction’s proximity to Santa Maria.
“We’re proud to send the message that the borders don’t stop at the Santa Maria bridge. They continue to San Luis Obispo County, and we will continue to fight this battle and work together as partners in making sure that any efforts to restart and continue with this activity is going to go with a very watchful eye.”
Operation Matador included members of the Santa Maria, Lompoc and Oxnard police departments, deputies from the Santa Barbara County and San Luis Obispo County sheriff’s offices, the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office, the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and more.
Assistance in linking the crimes with suspects came from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which conducted critical forensics tests.
As homicides occurred, Santa Maria police came under criticism from residents, while the City Council expressed support for the police chief and department.
“I especially want to thank our mayor and our City Council, who knew we were diligently working behind the scenes to solve these horrific crimes that blemished our community,” Martin said.
The chief noted the thousands of hours put in by detectives to assemble the evidence.
“They’re the real heroes …,” he said. “Literally, they are the ones who put this together, and I’m proud of them.”
Mayor Alice Patino said she had confidence in the Police Department that arrests would occur.
“What I’d like the public to know is this operation is like no other operation in the city of Santa Maria’s history,” Patino said. “The success of this morning’s operation lies in the leadership of this department as well as the coordinated efforts of our partner agencies.”
“I thank and I commend all of you on helping the city of Santa Maria by making our streets safe again,” Patino said.
She also called on the residents of Santa Maria to work to keep the city safe by reporting crimes.
“You have a responsibility, and I want you to do your part,” she said. “When you see crimes being committed, you have to report it. And please go up to a police officer every time you see them and say thank you. They deserve our thanks.”
Many of the suspects were expected to be arraigned in Santa Barbara County Superior Court in Santa Maria on Friday, authorities said.
Charges they face include as many as six counts apiece of conspiracy to commit murder with special allegation of criminal street gang involvement.
Other charges include active participation in a criminal street gang, conspiracy to be an active participant in a criminal street gang, carrying a concealed firearm and carrying a loaded firearm in public.
“This investigation is ongoing, and there may be more suspects arrested in the future,” Martin said.
Those arrested in Santa Maria were Jose Balmore Lainez Saravia, 31, aka “Pacho”; Jose Ricardo Saravia Lainez, 24, aka “Alex”; Marcos Manuel Sanchez Torres, 21, aka “Silent”; Tranquilino Robles Morales, 28, aka “Bandit”; Juan Carlos Lozano Membreno, 27, aka “Psycho”; Jose Narciso Escobar Hernandez, 25, aka “El Cuervo”; Luis Mejia Orellana, 22, aka “Smiley”; Juan Carlos Serrano, 30, aka “Catra”; Enedina Tomas, 33, aka “Mimi”; and Mayra Ortega, 24, aka “Linzii.”
Arrested in Bakersfield was Rafael Castro Lainez, 30, while Jose Mejia Orellano, 23, aka “Extrano,” was arrested in Oxnard.
Jose Bonilla-Mejia, 27 or 29, aka “Emedalio” or “Lalo,” was taken into custody in Ohio.
The name of the 15th suspect wasn’t immediately available.
To complicate matters, some of the suspects have multiple names, requiring additional investigation to confirm identities, the chief said.
Of the 40 people taken into custody, many were handed over to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, while others were released.