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Nuestra Familia, Norteno Gang Takedown Nets 10 More Guilty Pleas

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Ten more men caught in 2019's multi-agency Operation Red Reaper pleaded guilty to drug trafficking on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. (Shutterstock)
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The guilty pleas from Operation Red Reaper, which targeted the Nuestra Familia prison gang and the Norteno street gang, are piling up at Fresno’s federal courthouse.

Ten defendants charged in the 2019 takedown pleaded guilty to drug trafficking on Tuesday, U.S. Attorney Phillip A. Talbert said in a news release.

The federal, state, and local law enforcement operation produced more than 50 arrests. Twenty-three defendants faced federal charges. The Kings County District Attorney’s Office charged the others.

Six Visalia men entered guilty pleas on Tuesday: Jesse Juarez, 32; Daniel Juarez, 30; Michael Rocha, 40; Angel Montes, 26; Rafael Lopez, 41; and Raul Lopez Jr., 51.

Raymond Lopez, 35, of Pleasant Valley State Prison; Manuel Barrera, 28, of Kettleman City; Joann Bernal, 36, of Armona; and Ramon Amador, 33, of Riverdale, also pleaded guilty.

Drug Deal Hatched in Prison

According to court documents, high-ranking Nuestra Familia members Salvador Castro Jr. and Raymond Lopez used contraband cellphones from inside Coalinga’s Pleasant Valley State Prison to arrange the transport of illegal narcotics from drug dealers in California and Mexico to a stash house in Kings County.

From the stash house, gang members outside of the prison moved the drugs to distributors in Kings and Tulare counties, prosecutors said.

Long Prison Terms for Ringleaders

Castro, 51, of Fresno, was sentenced last year by U.S. District Judge Dale A. Drozd to 17 years and six months in prison for conspiring to sell more than 500 grams of methamphetamine.

He is a high-ranking Nuestra Familia member who was serving a 26-year-to-life sentence for a third-strike offense at the time of his arrest.

In July, Manuel Garcia, 36, of Armona, received a 15-year prison sentence. According to court documents, Garcia had a previous federal conviction for trafficking meth. Just months after his 2019 prison release, he conspired with other Nortenos in a meth trafficking ring.

Both Castro and Garcia pleaded guilty.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Justin J. Gilio, Kimberly A. Sanchez, and Jessica A. Massey are prosecuting the cases.

A Closer Look at Nuestra Familia

Nuestra Familia translates to “our family” in English. The gang began in Folsom State Prison in 1968, with its members primarily inmates (“Nortenos”) who were being brutalized by Mexican Mafia gang inmates (“Surenos”).

Authorities describe Nuestra Familia as well-organized with a formal leadership structure and a constitution. It levies “taxes” on drug deals conducted by street-level Nortenos.

Bill McEwen is news director and columnist for GV Wire. He joined GV Wire in August 2017 after 37 years at The Fresno Bee. With The Bee, he served as Opinion Editor, City Hall reporter, Metro columnist, sports columnist and sports editor through the years. His work has been frequently honored by the California Newspapers Publishers Association, including authoring first-place editorials in 2015 and 2016. Bill and his wife, Karen, are proud parents of two adult sons, and they have two grandsons. You can contact Bill at 559-492-4031 or at Send an Email

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