GRAND ISLAND, Neb. – A massive central Nebraska raid may have decapitated a violent gang, but officials say they have no plans to let up and allow the group to thrive again in the Plains manufacturing and retail hub of Grand Island.
The arrest of a dozen suspected gang members was trumpeted Thursday after 120 officers from the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and local law enforcement agencies conducted simultaneous raids in the 50,000-resident city 125 miles west of Omaha. Two more arrests were made Thursday evening to complete the gang roundup.
Local officials welcomed the effort to rein in gang activity but law enforcement offered few details about their continuing investigation into the East Side Locos, which has ties to the international Surenos gang based in southern California. Officials refused to discuss specifics of the gang's activities and origins Thursday.
"I am all in favor of everything we can do to make sure that any gang members feel unwelcome in Grand Island," Mayor Margaret Hornady said.
Police say gangs have been active in Grand Island since at least the mid-1990s, but their strength and influence has varied. Hall County Attorney Mark Young and other officials promised to keep up pressure on gangs across central Nebraska through a recently expanded law enforcement task force.
"Our next step is to continue disrupting the activity of this group and any other group that may be out there," Young said.
On Wednesday, an FBI SWAT team captured a 24-year-old Grand Island man indicted on 11 federal weapons charges and three federal drug charges. Eleven more suspects were captured between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. Thursday as teams of officers served arrest warrants throughout the area. Two suspects that eluded capture in the morning raid were arrested Thursday evening after Grand Island police received a tip.
The 14 indicted men face a combination of federal weapons and drug charges or state drug and gang recruitment charges. They all lived in Grand Island and were either U.S. citizens or legal residents.
At least five of the men are expected to appear in state court late Friday morning. The men facing federal charges are scheduled to appear in a Lincoln court on Monday.
Mike Feinberg, acting special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations within ICE, said the East Side Locos is one of the largest criminal organizations Grand Island has ever seen and "one of the most violent criminal street organizations in Nebraska."
Feinberg's agents help track international aspects of gangs, and over the past two years Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have arrested 80 gang members, including some in Grand Island. But Feinberg refused to detail the East Side Locos' international ties or say how many of those 80 arrests were made in Grand Island.
Grand Island Police Chief Steve Lamken said many of the city's residents probably aren't affected directly by the East Side Locos, but "the gangs are involved in a lot of our violent crime."
Three men arrested Thursday have been charged with violating a new Nebraska law that made it illegal to recruit new gang members. Court documents filed in support of those charges say the East Side Locos have been active in Grand Island since at least 1997.
FBI Special Agent in Charge Weysan Dun said criminals shouldn't see this week's arrests as an opportunity.
"Don't think for one second that today's arrests create a void for you to move into," Dun said.
Members of the East Side Locos have been convicted of drug trafficking, armed robberies, witness tampering and burglary, according to court documents. The gang allegedly maintains a "Homie Fund" — money made available to members when they are released from jail — supported by fees members pay on every ounce of methamphetamine and pound of marijuana they sell.
Grand Island's gang problems were highlighted earlier this year 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 retaliation soon followed, prompting police to station officers carrying AR-15 assault rifles at Grand Island High School entrances in February to prevent any problems.
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.
"Nothing good can happen from these gangs," Hoffman said.
Officials promised the arrests won't be the end of the enforcement.
"This is the start of a new and safer Grand Island," Young said.
Associated Press writer Margery A. Beck in Omaha contributed to this report.