Local, state and federal agents from Homeland Security Investigations were in the community of San Joaquin on Thursday interviewing people taken into custody following a raid against alleged MS-13 gang members in Mendota, The Bee has learned.
San Joaquin City Manager Elizabeth Nunez told The Bee she was aware that Homeland Security was leading an operation against MS-13 in Mendota.
A teacher at an elementary school in San Joaquin, who asked not to be named, said staff received an email indicating the situation was related to MS-13, but staff didn’t know what to believe.
An emergency meeting was called before school started.
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“We are not letting the kids go outside,” the teacher said. “We don’t want anybody to be on campus. We are protecting the kids.”
Fresno County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Toni Botti said officials served search warrants as part of an ongoing investigation, although he did not elaborate further on details of the investigation.
A total of 16 alleged MS-13 members were arraigned Thursday afternoon in U.S. District Federal Court in Fresno before Federal Judge Sheila K. Oberto. They all face charges for conspiracy to distribute controlled substances, and possession of controlled substances for distribution. They could face up to 20 years in prison and fines of up to $1 million.
Two of the defendants face additional charges. At press time, the complaint wasn’t yet available at the court’s electronic records, and several attorneys representing the defendants declined to speak on the case.
Federal Prosecutor Kimberly Sanchez declined to comment after the court hearing.
Some residents in San Joaquin and Mendota feared Thursday’s operation was an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid, but Botti said that was not the case. “It’s not an ICE raid,” Botti said. “It’s nothing targeting undocumented people.”
Law enforcement officials were operating Thursday out of the Sheriff’s Office sub-station in San Joaquin. At least two large buses were stationed there. “The target is not residents of the city of San Joaquin. The target was the city of Mendota,” Nunez said.
Nunez said she wanted to get out the message that the operation wasn’t an ICE raid, so people were not “concerned.”
Calls were placed to the U.S. Attorney General’s Office, but they have yet to comment.
The MS-13 members and associates allegedly operated in Mendota and in Los Angeles.
Birthed in Los Angeles in the 1980s, MS-13 has been a target of the Trump administration, and was even mentioned in Trump’s State of the Union address in January.
The gang includes members who are Salvadorian, Honduran, Guatemalan, Mexican and from other areas of Central and South America.
Mariah Thompson, co-director of the local National Lawyers Guild chapter, said she went to San Joaquin after being alerted of the raids early Thursday.
Upon arrival, Thompson noticed a “very large law enforcement presence.” She and others who were there to monitor the situation were told by community members that “not just members of gangs were picked up.”
Thompson believes such raids have a chilling effect on communities, because some residents are afraid of law enforcement and ICE agents. “The community is completely freaked out,” she said.
Advocates say a packing house was used as a partial staging for law enforcement agencies, Thompson said.
Lety Valencia, a community organizer with Faith in the Valley’s Fresno Chapter, said in response Thursday’s operation “this is another example of how communities are being terrorized from participating in daily life, whether it’s going to court, work or school.”
“The Sheriff has a lot of work to do to quell the fear in our community, because of the Sheriff’s continued relationship and vocal support of ICE, and echoing a criminalizing narrative of all immigrants,” she said in a statement to The Bee.
“Because of that, our immigrant communities have no other option but to assume the worst, especially when these types of actions happen in and around workplaces.”