Law enforcement officials on Tuesday announced an 18-month investigation into Escondido’s “most violent and active gangs” had resulted in 21 arrests and the seizures of 113 guns, including untraceable, privately made “ghost guns” 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 guns 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 “Florencia 13,” according to an ATF news release.
The investigation targeted alleged gang members selling ghost guns, or privately manufactured firearms assembled by hand from parts that often come in prepackaged kits.
Those same alleged gang members were also suspected of selling devices known as “switches” or “drop-in auto sears” that can convert a semi-automatic firearm into a fully automatic machine gun, which requires pulling a trigger just once to fire multiple shots, according to the news release and court documents related to the case.
Among the 113 guns seized as part of 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 emergence of the ghost gun phenomena, is now what ATF is seeing with the emergence of machine gun conversion kits,” Monique Villegas, special agent in charge of ATF’s Los Angeles Field Division, said in a statement. “The same criminals making and trafficking their own firearms are some of the same criminals trafficking the conversion devices.”
Authorities also seized 71 pistols, six rifles, two shotguns and one silencer during the investigation, as well as more than 15 pounds of methamphetamine and smaller amounts of fentanyl, ecstasy and cocaine, according to the news release.
ATF agents and Escondido police officers arrested 21 people in connection with the investigation, while two other suspects remain at large, according to the news release. Rather than waiting to round up the defendants at one time, as is often the case in similar long-term, wide-ranging investigations, authorities arrested suspects at various times over the last year.
“Many of the defendants were a threat to public safety and needed to be arrested immediately due to the large quantities of firearms they were making and selling,” ATF officials said in the news release.
At least 15 of the suspects face charges in federal court, including some who have already pleaded guilty to gun and drug charges, according to the news release and court documents. Eight others face charges in state court for firearm, drug and burglary offenses.
According to the news 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 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 pistols — all of them un-serialized ghost guns — for $19,100. During the last sale, according to prosecutors, he told the undercover agent that he and a partner would soon be obtaining “Glock switches” that could turn some of the semi-automatic pistols into automatic handguns.
A pair of plea agreements from another federal case details how a 22-year-old Coachella man sold an undercover ATF agent in Escondido three ghost guns for $6,300. The guns — a short-barrel rifle, a Glock-style pistol with an extended drum magazine and an AR-style pistol — were all semi-automatic weapons that used the un-serialized devices to turn 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 turn them into automatic guns and six other similar “surge switch” devices intended to turn AR-style rifles into automatic guns.
A third Coachella man later sold the undercover agent an un-serialized Glock-type pistol, seven “Glock switches,” 50 rounds of ammunition and nearly 1.5 pounds of methamphetamine for $5,750.