ATF, EPD arrest 21 gang members, seize 100 ghost guns

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Law enforcement officials announced Tuesday that an 18-month investigation into Escondido’s “most violent and active gangs” has resulted in 21 arrests and the seizure of 113 weapons, including privately made “ghost guns” that cannot be tracked 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 weapons and drugs, officials said.

The investigation, conducted by special agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and officers from the Escondido Police Department, focused on Escondido street gangs, including the Diablos, Westside and Florence 13. ATF News Release.

The investigation focused on alleged gang members who sold ghost guns, or privately manufactured firearms hand-assembled from parts that often come in prepackaged kits.

The same alleged gang members were also suspected of selling devices known as “switches” or “plug-in automatic hammers” that can convert a semi-automatic firearm into a fully automatic machine gun that only requires the trigger to be pulled once to fire multiple shots. , according to a press release and court documents in the case.

These three pistols were seized during an investigation by ATF and Escondido police and show the devices used to convert semi-automatic pistols into fully automatic ones.

(Courtesy of ATF Los Angeles Field Office)

Among the 113 guns seized in the investigation were 33 machine guns, including 19 that used devices that converted them from semi-automatic to automatic, according to ATF officials.

“What ATF saw 10 years ago with the advent of the ghost gun phenomenon is what ATF is seeing now with the advent of machine gun conversion kits,” Monique Villegas, special agent in charge of the ATF’s field division in Los Angeles. . “The same criminals who make and sell their own firearms are some of the same criminals who sell conversion devices.”

Authorities also seized 71 handguns, six rifles, two shotguns and one silencer during the investigation, along with more than 15 pounds of methamphetamine and smaller amounts of fentanyl, ecstasy and cocaine, according to a news release.

ATF agents and Escondido police officers have arrested 21 people in connection with the investigation, while two other suspects remain at large, according to a news release. Rather than waiting to round up the accused immediately, as is often the case in such long-term, wide-ranging investigations, authorities have arrested suspects at various times over the past year.

“Many of the defendants posed a threat to public safety and should have been arrested immediately because of the large number of firearms they manufactured and sold,” ATF officials said in a news release.

At least 15 suspects face charges in federal court, including some who have already pleaded guilty to gun and drug charges, according to a news release and court documents. Eight others face charges in state court for firearms, drug and burglary charges.

At least 17 of the defendants live in Escondido, at least three live in Coachella in Riverside County and one lives in San Diego, according to a news release.

A complaint filed against a 31-year-old Escondido man in U.S. District Court alleges he made six sales of ghost guns to informants and undercover ATF agents between Nov. 30 of last year and Feb. 8 of this year. The complaint alleges that during those six meetings, he sold 13 handguns — all of them non-series — for $19,100. During the latest sale, prosecutors said, he told an undercover agent that he and a partner would soon receive “Glock switches” that could turn some of the semi-automatic pistols into automatic pistols.

A pair of plea agreements in another federal case detail how a 22-year-old Coachella man sold three ghost guns to an undercover ATF agent in Escondido for $6,300. The weapons — a short-barreled rifle, a Glock-style pistol with an extended drum magazine, and an AR-style pistol — were semi-automatic weapons that used non-serialized devices to convert them into automatic firearms.

Another sale involving the same man and a second Coachella resident resulted in an undercover ATF agent purchasing three Glock-style pistols, three “Glock switches” to convert into automatic weapons, and six other similar “surge switch” devices. designed for AR-style conversion. rifles into automatic guns.

A third man from Coachella later sold the undercover agent a non-production Glock handgun, seven “Glock switches,” 50 rounds of ammunition and nearly 1.5 pounds of methamphetamine for $5,750.

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