Law enforcement officials announced Tuesday that an 18-month investigation into Escondido’s “most violent and active gangs” resulted in 21 arrests and the seizure of 113 firearms, including Untraceable and privately made “phantom weapons” and dozens of automatic rifles and pistols.
As part of the investigation, dubbed “Operation Devil’s Den”, confidential informants and undercover law enforcement agents made 38 controlled purchases of firearms and drugs, officials said.
The investigation, led by special agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and officers from the Escondido Police Department, focused on street gangs in Escondido, including the “Diablos”, “Westside” and “Florencia 13”, according to an ATF press release.
The investigation targeted suspected gang members selling ghost guns or privately made firearms hand-assembled from parts often supplied in pre-packaged kits.
These same alleged gang members were also believed to have sold devices called “switches” or “automatic seizures” that can convert a semi-automatic firearm into a fully automatic machine gun, requiring a single press of the trigger to fire multiple shots. , according to the press release and court documents related to the case.
Among the 113 weapons seized as part of the investigation were 33 machine guns, 19 of which used devices that converted them from semi-automatic to automatic, according to ATF officials.
“What the ATF saw 10 years ago with the emergence of the ghost gun phenomenon is now what the ATF sees with the emergence of machine gun conversion kits,” said Monique Villegas, special agent in charge of the ATF field division in Los Angeles, in a press release. . “The same criminals who manufacture and traffic their own firearms are among the same criminals who traffic in conversion devices.”
Authorities also seized 71 pistols, six rifles, two shotguns and a silencer during the investigation, along with more than 15 pounds of methamphetamine and smaller amounts of fentanyl, ecstasy and cocaine, according to the Press release.
ATF officers and Escondido police have arrested 21 people in connection with the investigation, while two other suspects remain at large, the statement said. Rather than waiting to round up defendants at one time, as is often the case in similar long-term, high-profile investigations, authorities have arrested suspects at various times over the past year.
“Many of the defendants posed a threat to public safety and needed to be arrested immediately due to the large quantities of firearms they were manufacturing and selling,” ATF officials said in the news release.
At least 15 of the suspects face charges in federal court, some of whom have already pleaded guilty to firearms and drug charges, according to the news release and court documents. Eight other people face charges in state court for firearms, drug and burglary offenses.
According to the press release, at least 17 of the defendants live in Escondido, at least three live in Coachella in Riverside County and one lives in San Diego.
A complaint against a 31-year-old Escondido man in U.S. District Court alleges he sold six phantom guns to informants and undercover ATF agents between November 30 last year and November 8 February of this year. The complaint alleges that during those six meetings, he sold 13 guns – all ghost guns with no serial numbers – for $19,100. During the latest sale, prosecutors say, he told the undercover officer that he and a partner would soon be getting “Glock switches” that could turn some of the semi-automatic pistols into automatic handguns.
A pair of plea agreements from another federal case detail how a 22-year-old Coachella man sold an undercover ATF agent in Escondido three ghost guns for $6,300. The guns – a short-barreled shotgun, a Glock-style pistol with an extended drum magazine, and an AR-style pistol – were all semi-automatic weapons that used unserialized devices to turn them into automatic firearms.
Another sale involving the same man and a second Coachella resident resulted in an undercover ATF agent buying three Glock style pistols, three “Glock switches” to turn them into automatic pistols, and six other similar “surge switches” intended to turn AR-style rifles into automatic rifles.
A third Coachella man then sold the undercover officer a Glock-type pistol without a serial number, seven “Glock switches”, 50 rounds and nearly 1.5 pounds of methamphetamine for $5,750.
California Daily Newspapers