Prison sentences cap 10-month investigation in local counties

Operation Red Reaper results in drug-trafficking arrests of 13 members of Nuestra Familia and Norteno street gang, includes suspects from Fresno and Tulare counties

Washington D.C., USA - February 29, 2020: Sign of United States
Darren Fraser
Published June 14, 2023  • 
9:00 am
FRESNO – The U.S. Attorney has announced that the last two defendants of a multi-agency operation spanning back to 2019 were sentenced to prison.

On June 12, U.S. Attorney Phillip A. Talbert announced that Norteno gang member Angel Montes, 27, of Visalia was sentenced to 11 years and three months for drug distribution and other charges. Eric Mercado of Lemoore, who was arrested in a related case, was sentenced to two and a half years for the illegal possession of a machine gun.

Eleven other individuals were previously convicted as a result of Operation Red Reaper. These include Jesse Juarez, Daniel Juarez, Michael Rocha, Angel Montes, Rafael Lopez and Raul Lopez, Jr., all of whom are from Visalia. From Fresno County, Ramon Amador and Tiffany Feller, both from Riverdale, were also convicted.

Operation Red Reaper began in September 2018. The investigation involved the Kings County Gang Task Force, the California Department of Justice, the California Highway Patrol, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the FBI, the Kings County District Attorney’s Office and the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office.

In a June 2019 press conference, then California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said the 10-month operation resulted in the arrest of 54 individuals. Over 36 pounds of drugs were seized from locations in Kings and Tulare counties. Fifty-three firearms were also recovered.

In June 2019, a federal grand jury returned a 13-count indictment against members of Nuestra Familia, including a charge of conspiracy to distribute over 500 grams of cocaine.  

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Salvador Castro, Jr. and Raymond Lopez, described as high-ranking members of Nuestra Familia, ran a drug-trafficking operation from behind bars at Pleasant Valley State Prison. The two men were able to orchestrate the operation using contraband cell phones. Castro and Lopez facilitated the movement of methamphetamines and other drugs from locations in California and Mexico. The drugs were stored at a stash house in Kings County; from there, Norteno and Nuestra Familia members distributed the drugs throughout Kings and Tulare counties. 

Last month, another Nuestra Familia member, Lorentino Gutierrez of Hanford, was sentenced to nearly 22 years in prison after being arrested in 2019. Gutierrez used his Cadillac Escalade as collateral to purchase 500 grams of a methamphetamine mixture. Gutierrez purchased the drugs in Bakersfield. He was stopped by investigators on his way to Hanford. Authorities found five bags of methamphetamines after they searched Gutierrez’s Escalade. 

Operation Red Reaper was launched under the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN), which began in 2001. PSN was initially developed as a means to reduce gun crime on the East Coast. It has since grown to include 94 federal judicial districts in all 50 states and U.S. territories. The PSN website notes, “[T]he fundamental goal of  this work is to reduce violent crime in places we call home, not to increase the number of arrests or prosecutions as if they were ends in themselves.”

Darren Fraser