Sweep targets street gang directed from California prison

Authorities arrested 31 people Wednesday who they said are connected to a violent, drug-running multi-state street gang directed from inside one of California's most notorious prisons.

The massive sweep by more than 750 law enforcement federal, state and local officers netted 29 suspects on drug and weapons charges across 10 Northern California counties.

Two others were arrested in Pittsburgh and the Medford, Oregon, area.

The operation was directed by two inmate members of the Northern Structure prison gang who used smuggled cellphones to communicate from inside Pelican Bay State Prison, federal and state officials said.

The inmates directed a subgroup of the Norteno street gang that grew in Woodland, west of Sacramento, in recent years. Both are affiliated with the Nuestra Familia gang.

Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig called it "a violent criminal street gang that has plagued much of the region and frankly reached across the nation."

"Guns, drugs and violence are the trademarks of this gang, and members of this gang have used those guns and weapons to assault and kill their enemies and even to kill innocent civilians," he said.

Two members of the Varrio Bosque Norteno gang were recently sentenced to life in prison for fatally stabbing 41-year-old Ronald Antonio in 2016 when they mistook him for a rival gang member as they rampaged through a Woodland mobile home park, he said. They were convicted separately from Wednesday's crackdown, in which suspects were charged with trafficking mostly in methamphetamine and heroin and with illegally possessing weapons as ex-felons.

Many of those charged were selling drugs and weapons using social media sites, said U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott.

Pelican Bay inmates Patrick Botello, 31, and Ricardo Villa, 39, are charged with drug trafficking and using a cellphone to direct drug trafficking in and out of prison.

Thirty-four weapons were seized Wednesday, along with $71,500 in cash and several hundred pounds of marijuana. Scott said authorities also seized a lab used to make butane honey oil from marijuana, a dangerous operation that often leads to explosions.

No one was injured as law enforcement officials served 69 search, parole and probation warrants backed by aircraft and the FBI's hostage rescue team.

Eighteen of those arrested Wednesday, including the two inmates, were named in newly unsealed federal indictments. Eleven others were swept up on various charges during Wednesday's raids and it is unclear where they will be prosecuted, Scott said.