A mass arrest of Fresno street gang members by federal, state authorities and Fresno police in early November pulled back a curtain on the illegal arms trade in the city, and also revealed that a weapon used by terrorists in Eastern Europe and the Middle East was being offered for sale on local streets.
The arrests took place Nov. 2, when 10 SWAT teams, including FBI and agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, served warrants at 23 locations in the Fresno metropolitan area, arresting 36 members of the Strother Boys street gang.
Many of those arrested face federal prosecution on weapons and drug charges. The raids were a response to about 30 shootings and several murders along with other crimes. Allegations against them were made in a federal indictment.
The glimpse into the illicit arms trade comes from an affidavit filed by ATF Special Agent Brad Dickey in Fresno federal court in support of a criminal complaint against Jesus Velazquez, who is accused of being in the business of dealing firearms without a license.
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The affidavit describes negotiations between Velazquez, identified as the owner of the Third Street Barbershop at Third Street and Ventura Avenue in Fresno; Anthony Latimore, identified as a member of the Strother Boys; and others.
The affidavit describes phone and text messages obtained with the assistance of confidential informants associated with the Strother Boys. The ATF document alleges that Velazquez negotiated the sale to Latimore of a fully automatic handgun that originated in Turkey as a toy that fires blank ammunition. Velazquez and Latimore are being held in Fresno County Jail on U.S. Marshal holds.
The ATF declined to comment on the weapon or to make additional comments about the affidavit.
According to the document, the weapon was a Zoraki 925 9 mm. The document states that the gun, designed “to provide an audible report when fired without expelling a projectile … had been modified and would fire live ammunition. … Additionally, as manufactured and advertised, the Zoraki 925 pistol functions as a machine gun.”
While the use of such a gun is relatively rare in the United States, conversion of blank firing guns into real firearms is relatively common in Europe. According to Benjamin King of the Geneva, Switzerland-based Small Arms Survey, the weapons also have started turning up in in the Middle East and Africa. The Zoraki has been banned in Canada because it was being used by gangs in Toronto.
According to King, the use of converted pistols is linked to the lack of available weapons, either because of the high price of real weapons or restrictive gun laws. He noted that similar, deactivated weapons reconverted to live-firing guns were used by terrorists in attacks at the Paris-based Charlie Hebdo newspaper, in which 10 journalists and two policemen were killed in early in 2015.
“The appeal of converted guns is that you can have an unregistered, fully functioning firearm,” he wrote in response to an inquiry from The Bee. “The real appeal of the Zoraki blank guns, as well as other Turkish-made blanks, is the quality of the construction. They can indeed handle the chamber pressures (of modern ammunition). This is not to say that eventually they might break down, but if the conversion is done correctly then it should be able to handle it for multiple firings.”
An additional benefit of the weapon for criminal use would be the absence of rifling in the barrel, preventing investigators from obtaining ballistic evidence from fired bullets.
According to the affidavit, one of the confidential informants involved in the investigation was able to obtain the weapon and it was tested by the ATF and proved to be fully automatic.
Arrests of Velazquez and others followed the purchase of other weapons, including a Smith & Wesson pistol, a .22-caliber rifle with serial numbers obliterated and an Israeli Military Industries Uzi, along with 228 grams of methamphetamine.