Police Chief Cam Sanchez announced Wednesday morning that a massive year-and-a-half-long crackdown on gang violence in Santa Barbara — dubbed Operation Falling Dawn and carried out in conjunction with the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, and various state and local agencies — has resulted in arrests of or charges against 68 people. He also spoke of a likely connection between Santa Barbara gang activity and the nefarious reach of the Mexican Mafia, a highly organized, prison-based syndicate that deals in drugs, guns, gambling, and other criminal enterprises.
The ongoing suppression effort, named because it signifies “the end of a beginning,” said Santa Barbara Police Department spokesperson Sgt. Riley Harwood, started in July 2012 in response to the escalation of serious violent crime in town. “There was a new status quo that was developing,” Harwood explained. “We have a problem, despite what some may say,” Sanchez asserted. “We’re not talking about stealing vehicles; we’re talking about crimes against people.”
Sanchez and Harwood pointed to a string of stabbings and assaults — including seven attempted murders since last February — as evidence of a shift toward a more vicious disposition among area gang members. They also noted the shooting death of Ventura gang member Kelly Hunt in February. And while police have stated that overall gang activity has decreased in recent months — a fact much touted by Sanchez during some of his briefings to the City Council — the severity of the cases has ratcheted up.
The Mexican Mafia — also known as La Eme, Spanish for the letter “M” — appears to have largely stayed out of Santa Barbara gang business in recent years, but for reasons not publicly disclosed is now better coordinating with Eastside and Westside gang members. It’s not clear if La Eme has been here all along and just started pulling strings, or if there’s been a concerted effort within the outfit to reach its tentacles deeper into the South Coast crime scene. Sanchez said it would be premature to comment further on the connection, citing ongoing investigations and court cases.
Of the 68 individuals implicated in Operation Falling Dawn, four are named in the city’s proposed gang injunction: Raymond Macias, Christian Botella, Edgar Cordova, and Marcial Garcia. Six of the suspects are juveniles, and 18 are women. All are either gang members themselves, associates, or customers. “You’re going to find moms and dads and sons and daughters involved in crime together,” Sanchez said. “It’s amazing to me.” During their raids and sweeps, detectives seized $72,000 in drug sale proceeds, 12 firearms, 8.5 ounces of heroin, two pounds one ounce of meth, 13.5 ounces of cocaine, plus five ounces of processed marijuana and multiple plants. None of the arrests have resulted in convictions as many of the cases are just starting to work their way through the court system.
During Wednesday’s press conference, held in front of a wall plastered with mug shots and a table full of guns and drugs, Sanchez said it’s hard to explain the timing behind the rise in violence. “It’s a great question, but I don’t have a great answer,” he said. Sanchez said the decision to make the public announcement now, a few months before the city’s proposed gang injunction is presented in court, had no connection with the legal filing or its status. “This has nothing to do with the gang injunction,” he said. Later, Harwood explained that while Operation Falling Dawn is mainly indicative of “reactive” police work, a gang injunction would allow the department to engage in more “proactive” approaches.
Sanchez spoke of the hard work and long hours the department put into the operation. “We’ve accomplished a lot,” he said. “And we want to assure the community that the Santa Barbara Police Department will go to all lengths to keep the city safe.” Nevertheless, Sanchez went on, more needs to be done. He explained new suppression efforts are currently taking place, with additional crackdowns on the way. “Even in paradise we have issues,” he said, pointing to the wall of photos. “And that is perfect proof.”