Wednesday, January 27, 2021     Volume: 21, Issue: 47

Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on March 9th, 2016, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 17, Issue 1 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 17, Issue 1

Santa Maria Police Department-led Operation Matador results in the arrests of 16 suspected MS-13 gang members


In the pre-dawn hours of March 3, at least 150 police officers and federal agents from eight state and federal agencies simultaneously served warrants at 12 locations in cities that spanned Santa Maria to Columbus, Ohio. 

Dubbed Operation Matador, the tightly coordinated effort led by the Santa Maria Police Department (SMPD) resulted in several confiscated firearms and the arrests of 15 suspected members and associates of the notorious MS-13 gang. Most of those arrested reportedly come from El Salvador and Honduras, with one arrestee thought to be from Mexico. 

Santa Maria Police Department Chief Ralph Martin briefs the press on Operation Matador, which resulted in the arrest of more than a dozen suspected MS-13 gang members on March 3. Mayor Alice Patino said the operation was “like no other” in the city’s history.

Of the warrants served, eight were served in Santa Maria, two were in Bakersfield, one in Oxnard, and one in Columbus, Ohio.

At least one person from each location was arrested, including in Ohio, although Martin isn’t sure if that suspect will fight extradition to California. Another 40 people were detained from across all the locations, many of which included family members and small children who were turned over to the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Martin said during a press conference. 

The operation included SWAT teams from Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo county sheriff’s offices, the FBI, both the Lompoc and Oxnard police departments, and also involved members of the ATF, ICE, and the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office.

With the investigation still ongoing, Martin said there could be more arrests. At least one more arrest came after the initial operation, bumping the number of those arrested to 16. 

Operation Matador was the culmination of a months-long “exhaustive” investigation into the local dealings of the gang, according to SMPD Chief Ralph Martin, who added that its ultimate goal is to “completely” and “unequivocally” eliminate the gang from Santa Maria.

It was during the investigation into the city’s homicides—which spiked to 13 in 2015—that Martin realized his department needed to take a “task force approach” instead of investigating each homicide individually. 

“It became quite evident that we would need additional resources to include the federal government,” Martin said during a press conference at SMPD headquarters on March 3, adding that he reached out to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for help with forensic analysis. “The city of Santa Maria will no longer be a city where MS-13 or any other street gang can live or engage in a career criminal enterprise.” 

On March 4 beginning at noon, at least 13 of the 16 suspects made court appearances. Except for one suspect, all of them were brought in in groups of three to five, each wearing blue prison jumpsuits with hands shackled to their waists. They were formally arraigned from behind thick, soundproof glass. 

Rafael Castro Lainez was the only one who didn’t appear behind glass, and was dressed wearing jeans and a black tank top. He was arraigned separately. 

Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Patricia Kelly set bail ranging from $1 million to $9 million, with the exception of one female suspect, Mayra Ortega, whose bail was set at $135,000. 

The other suspects include: Jose Balmore Lainez Saravia, Jose Ricardo Saravia Lainez, Marcos Manuel Sanchez Torres, Juan Carlos, Lozano Membreno, Jose Narciso Escobar Hernandez, Luis Mejia Orellana, Olvin Serrano, Enedina Tomas, Jose Bonilla-Mejia, and Jose Mejia Orellano.

Those arrested had no other gang affiliation, Martin said, adding that some of them were MS-13 leaders within the city. 

Their charges range from conspiracy to commit murder with criminal street gang special allegations, active participant in criminal street gang, and conspiracy to be an active gang participant, according to Martin. They appear in court again on March 18. 

When asked, Martin said none of the suspects were specifically booked or charged with any of the 2015 murders, although he said he anticipates this could change as the investigation pans out. 

Martin said that some of the confiscated guns—which include rifles, shotguns, and handguns—match the weapons that “would have been” used in some of last year’s homicides. 

Specific details of the raid and the suspects were not immediately released, as Martin said they were still being questioned at the time of the press conference. Their citizenship status remains unclear. 

Neither of the community walks that were held on Feb. 22 and Feb. 29 led to any MS-13 arrests, Martin said. 

The MS-13 gang is known for its elaborate gang tattoos.

However, here’s what’s known: The suspects have been here for at least a year and a half, possibly two years, Martin said. 

“I think MS-13 was here to make a statement,” Martin said. “They were trying to own the town.” 

It’s not clear how many more MS-13 gang members exist in the county. However, despite its ties to Central America, it’s a gang that has somewhat local origins. 

According to Martin Flores, a gang witness expert and a member of the Los Angeles County Superior Court Expert Witness Panel, MS-13 stands for “Mara Salvatrucha” and started in Los Angeles in the 1980s as refugees came to the city from fleeing the civil war in El Salvador. 

Many of the Salvadoran youth who came had affinities for heavy metal music and long hair. They were ostracized from other Hispanic groups, according to Flores, and became the target of gangs. In response, they formed their own groups as a way to protect each other.  

They soon became involved in gang activity. They were arrested and deported back to El Salvador and nearby countries, Flores said, where they planted the seeds that would eventually become the gang as it is today, with a presence stretching from Central America to Canada. 

What sets MS-13 apart from most gangs is not only their majority-immigrant composition and their international existence, but their brutal violence. 

For instance, the gang was linked to the methodical killing of 28 passengers aboard a bus in Chamalecon, Honduras, in 2004, according to the BBC

“We found that MS-13 became a force to be reckoned with because they became more hardcore than your typical gang,” Flores told the Sun. “They had more experience. They’ve seen the civil war, they’ve seen violence.” 

Flores disagrees with statements that the gang is 50,000-members strong, as is often believed. He said he believes that number actually reflects the individuals who have been documented and who aren’t necessarily active in the gang. And for the ones who are, Flores said not all of them are into illegal activity and only a small percentage is violent.  

“Not everyone in the gang is that hardcore killer type,” Flores told the Sun. “Some are just connected in terms of relatability. You have very different types of individuals, but don’t consider the entire group involved in the same capacity.” 

Staff Writer David Minsky can be reached at

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