GRAND ISLAND, Neb. – State and federal law enforcement officers launched a massive operation against a central Nebraska gang with international ties, arresting 12 suspected members during raids across this small manufacturing hub surrounded by farmland, authorities said Thursday.
Officials said the roundup of suspects — some of them arrested before dawn Thursday — largely decapitated the local gang that was blamed for much of the crime in Grand Island, a city of about 50,000 people 125 miles west of Omaha.
Two other people were still being sought Thursday afternoon.
Some 120 officers from the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and local law enforcement agencies were involved in the raids.
"If you persist in these crimes, the cross hairs of justice will be fixed on you eventually," FBI Special Agent in Charge Weysan Dun said at a news conference
All the people indicted this week are members of Grand Island's East Side Locos gang. Dun said the Grand Island gang has its origins in the Surenos gang of southern California, which is considered an international gang with ties to Latin America.
"Transnational gangs overrun some communities through fear, intimidation and ruthless acts of violence," said Mike Feinberg, acting special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations. "The criminal enterprises these gangs represent destabilize our communities and our everyday lives."
The arrests and indictments this week are part of two federal operations: the FBI's anti-crime initiative, Operation Safe Streets, and Operation Community Shield, an ongoing effort by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to target foreign-born violent gang members. Locally, the investigation was known as Operation Pier Pressure in reference to Grand Island's Pier Park, which had been overrun by gang activity.
An FBI SWAT team made the first arrest Wednesday. The other 11 suspects were captured between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. Thursday as teams of officers simultaneously served arrest warrants at locations throughout the Grand Island area.
Grand Island Police Chief Steve Lamken thanked all the other agencies for their support because these arrests wouldn't have been possible without the cooperation. The task force that made the arrests included some 60 FBI agents and about 20 Homeland Security investigators within ICE. Among them were FBI agents from Nebraska and Kansas City, Mo., as well as Homeland Security investigators from Nebraska and Minnesota.
Grand Island police officials said the city has experienced gang problems since at least the mid 1990s, and the severity of the problem has varied of the years.
"The gangs are disproportionately involved in our street crime," Lamken said.
Grand Island recent trouble with gang violence was highlighted in January when a 15-year-old student was shot at a home in the city in what was believed to have been a gang-related altercation. Rumors of gang retaliation following the shooting swept through the city, prompting police to station officers carrying AR-15 assault rifles at Grand Island High School entrances to reassure students and parents.
Several other shootings in recent years also are believed to have been related to an increase in gang members in Grand Island.
Earlier this year, Hall County Attorney Mark Young estimated there were fewer than 100 gang members in the city.
Sarah Gregory of Grand Island said the city that she grew up in seems more dangerous than it was when she was a child. Gregory, who works as a convenience store clerk on the west side of downtown, says crime and violence in her hometown have worsened in the last couple years.
"I don't know where it all came from," said Gregory, whose father used to be a police officer in Grand Island. "When I was little, I used to walk to school every day. I can't see my parents doing that today."
Joel Hoffman, 60, a semiretired manufacturing worker, said he's lived in Grand Island for nearly 50 years, and is glad to see federal officials going after suspected gang members. Hoffman said he hears about some sort of gang-related incident about once a month.
"The east side of Grand Island is maybe not a nice place to be at night," he said. "Nothing good can happen from these gangs."
Associated Press writer Margery A. Beck in Omaha contributed to this report.