More than 20 Southern California gang members awaiting release from area jails and state prisons are facing new criminal charges today as a part of “Operation Winter Warning,” an expanded effort to target incarcerated foreign national gang members for federal prosecution.
Since the operation began three weeks ago, a total of 23 criminal alien gang members have been charged with re-entry after deportation, a felony violation that carries a maximum penalty of up to 20 years in prison. Six of those defendants have been released to federal authorities and will make their initial appearance in U.S. District Court here today. Among them is Julio Cesar Mata-Sosa, a 34-year-old Mexican national whose history includes seven prior deportations, and past criminal convictions for robbery, possession and sale of drugs, and auto theft. Also slated to appear in court today on felony re-entry charges is Ascencion Hernandez-Perez, 38, a Mexican national with reputed ties to the Valerio Street gang, who has prior convictions for making criminal threats and domestic violence. Like Mata, Hernandez has been previously deported seven times.
“Operation Winter Warning” is a joint effort involving the U.S. Attorney’s Office, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, which assigned two of its prosecutors to the U.S. Attorney’s Office to help handle the additional cases. Under the program, ICE officers are screening foreign-born inmates at area jails to identify those who have been previously deported and have ties to violent street gangs. The majority of cases presented for prosecution so far have originated in the Los Angeles County Jail.
“This is another example of how federal and local law enforcement agencies in Los Angeles are joining forces to combat the violence and crime perpetrated by transnational street gangs,” said Thomas P. O’Brien, United States Attorney for the Central District of California. “The strong support we’ve received from Steve Cooley and the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office has allowed us to increase the number of prosecutions of those criminal aliens who repeatedly return to the United States to commit gang crimes.”
In mid-2006, the United States Attorney’s Office established its Domestic Security and Immigration Crimes Section (DSIC), a specialized unit of attorneys dedicated to prosecuting complex immigration-related crimes. DSIC is also tasked with handling the prosecution of previously deported criminal aliens, which has historically constituted a significant number of cases in the office. A major focus of those prosecutions has been to protect the community by bringing charges against deported criminal aliens affiliated with violent street gangs. The two prosecutors assigned from the District Attorney’s Office work within DSIC to handle these cases.
“This joint enforcement effort sends a strong message about our shared resolve to target criminal aliens, including foreign national gang members, whose presence poses a threat to public safety,” said Jim Hayes, Los Angeles field office director for ICE detention and removal operations. “We are bringing all of our tools to bear against those who show no regard for our laws or our borders.”
The District Attorney’s Office says its decision to assign two prosecutors to pursue federal felony re-entry cases was sparked, in part, by the slaying of Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy David March. March was gunned down during a routine traffic stop in April 2002 by Armando Garcia, a Mexican national who was in the United States illegally and had previously been deported three times.
“This unique program will be an efficient mechanism to rid Los Angeles County of previously convicted and deported gang members who have made their way back into this country,” District Attorney Steve Cooley said. “Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy David March was murdered by a three-times deported drug dealer who should never have been in our country.”
“Similarly, on December 20, 2006, Oscar Gabriel Gallegos attempted to murder two Long Beach Police Officers, Abe Yap and Roy Wade,” Cooley added. “Gallegos had been excluded from admission to this country on three occasions.”
“Operation Winter Warning” is part of ICE’s Criminal Alien Program, the agency’s comprehensive national strategy to identify and remove criminal aliens from the United States. As part of this initiative, personnel from the ICE Office of Detention and Removal Operations (DRO) screen inmates at more than 50 local and county jails in the greater Los Angeles area. The goal is to locate individuals who are in the country illegally as well as legal permanent residents and visa holders who commit crimes that potentially render them removable from the United States. Officers with DRO’s Violent Criminal Alien Section then review the cases to single out serious criminal offenders, including foreign national gang members, for federal prosecution.
To bolster that effort, ICE has cross-trained personnel from the sheriff’s departments in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties, enabling them to interview and lodge immigration detainers against deportable criminal aliens held in their county jails. In part because of those partnerships, the number of potentially deportable criminal aliens being identified every month in Los Angeles area jails has nearly tripled in the last year, climbing from 707 in October 2006 to 1,742 in November 2007.