Santa Cruz police: Homeland Security misled city with ‘gang’ raids that were immigration related

Mercury News – by Michael Todd

SANTA CRUZ – Discord flared Thursday between Santa Cruz Police Department and Homeland Security Investigations after a five-year inquiry of alleged MS-13 gang activity spurred detainments based on questions of citizenship — not just criminal allegations.

Santa Cruz Police Chief Kevin Vogel, who is slated to retire in June, denounced Homeland Security during a press conference Thursday. He said the federal agency misled the police department about a series of raids Feb. 13. But Homeland Security spokesman James Schwab said the police department was aware that immigrants encountered during the investigation would be held briefly during review of their “identities and case histories.” 

The police department challenged why the investigation included a roundup of people not facing criminal indictment. Deputy Chief Dan Flippo said he learned recently that 10 people were detained on suspicion of immigration status. Initial reports about the investigation cited 12 men arrested in connection with drug trafficking and extortion. Of that dozen, 10 are named in a federal indictment issued Feb. 7 in U.S. District Court.

Information about the detainees is limited, however.

“During the enforcement action, authorities encountered 11 illegal aliens at the operational locations who were detained initially on administrative immigration violations due to their association with suspected members of a transnational street gang,” Schwab said. Of those detainees, one remained in custody Thursday, “due to his criminal history and possible ties to the ongoing investigation,” Schwab said. He also said no children were left unattended during the investigation.

Flippo said six of the 10 detainees were taken to a federal facility. Of those six, five were released on GPS monitoring and one was released immigration forms. Four others were given the same immigration forms — known as a G-56 — at their homes, Flippo said.

Schwab also said it is unusual for a local law enforcement agency to speak against a federal investigative department. U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesman Abraham Simmons declined to comment Thursday.

The raids are the result of a phone call in October 2011. A Santa Cruz police officer received a tip from an El Salvadoran citizen about MS-13 members selling drugs and threatening people, Flippo said. That lead evolved with tips of businesses “being extorted on Ocean Street” and reports of armed gang members by spring 2012, he added. Given the “large scope of the investigation” and its international nexus, Homeland Security became the lead agency at that time.

Sgt. Chris Clark said the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office did not participate in the investigation.

“We didn’t receive adequate information regarding the full context of the operation and as such, did not feel comfortable devoting sheriff’s office resources,” Clark said.


Alfonso Vasquez, who lives at Nueva Vista Apartments in Beach Flats, was asleep pre-dawn Feb. 13, when he heard a disruption at his door and woke to federal agents ordering him to leave the building at gunpoint. The agents had a warrant authorizing entry, which was forced, and they to him to put his hands on his head. His door had been busted open per federal search warrant authorizing seizure of property linked to gang activity, extortion — such as receipts and documents warranting monies owed — and a variety of electronic devices and electronic storage, according to court documents.

Vasquez and his wife, Teresa Escobar, are legal residents of the U.S. Both were asked to provide documentation during the raid at their apartment. Vasquez, Escobar and their children were ushered from the home in their bedclothes and told to remain outside in custody of federal agents, Vasquez said in Spanish at his home on Thursday.

“I wasn’t scared. I was angry,” Vasquez said. “I told the children, ‘Please don’t worry. I have no problems with the police.’”

He also was not among the 10 men named in a federal indictment behind the bulk of the raids throughout Santa Cruz, Watsonville and Daly City before sunrise Feb. 13.

“It was like an earthquake,” Escobar said in Spanish regarding the noise when officers busted open their door, which remains damaged and is going to be repaired by the apartment complex. A 10-year-old girl at the home also was told to put her hands on her head and go downstairs while officers searched.

Vasquez said the officers wore blue and green uniforms. After officers left his home, they left a copy of the search warrants on his couch.

Thursday’s press conference revealed new information about those detained and questioned about their immigration status in an investigation that had a criminal nexus.


During the press conference, Vogel was flanked by Santa Cruz Mayor Cynthia Chase and Deputy Chief Flippo. Vogel said there were 12 arrests in the city, county of Santa Cruz and Daly City related to a gang investigation originating with his department.

The Santa Cruz Police Department lent resources to the federal raids despite the city’s status as a sanctuary city.

Vogel said the police department was led to believe the investigation intended to remove criminals from the streets and the roundup of 12 alleged gang members helped to dismantle the transnational gang MS-13’s local affiliations.

In 2010, the Sentinel reported on arrests tied to MS-13 members in a joint federal-local investigation. That investigation included the arrest of alleged gang member Jose Abrego Galdamez. Galdamez was deported three times, the last time in 2005, according to court documents. Police said that man had deep gang ties. His name is similar to one of the 10 men indicted and arrested Feb. 13 by Homeland Security Investigations: Jose David Abrego-Galdamez. Vogel said he was uncertain whether this was the same person.

Vogel and Chase apologized to the families who have been separated by the detainments.

Vogel added that the agency cannot trust Homeland Security and no longer will work with the federal agency. At its meeting on Tuesday, the Santa Cruz City Council is scheduled to discuss the city and police department’s immigration policies.

Vogel said Homeland Security assists with local law enforcement investigations because they are able to pursue leads across state lines. That trust has been compromised, he said.

“We can’t cooperate with a law enforcement agency we cannot trust,” Vogel said.

Flippo detailed a narrative of what he called “misinformation” from the federal agency. Flippo said he learned during a Feb. 14 Santa Cruz City Council meeting that not all arrests were related to gang-related criminal allegations, leading him to push Homeland Security contacts for further information. He said it was a surprise that some detainments were not related to criminal allegations.

Schwab said the investigation’s scope was clearly communicated before the raids.

“Several days prior to the operation, our special agent in charge office notified the Santa Cruz chief of police that any non-targeted foreign nationals encountered during the enforcement actions at the search and arrest locations would be held briefly until determinations could be made about their identities and case histories,” Schwab said. “The chief acknowledged this possibility and it was agreed that no foreign nationals would enter the Santa Cruz Police Department’s facility or their police vehicles.”

Vogel said the situation has been the most difficult in more than three decades of policing. He said it is important for agencies to work together.

Chase said the detainments disregarded the city as a sanctuary. “I’m deeply disturbed and upset. I’m outraged,” Chase said.

Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Carmel, issued a statement Thursday in support of the police department’s staunch opposition to the detainments. He said he will demand “complete information from ICE about the scope of the operation.”

Panetta said he is in contact with federal agencies regarding the roundup.

“Members of our community should not live in fear that they may be detained or deported, or that their children may be separated from them because of who they know or where they live,” Panetta said. “What’s worse, the breakdown in trust between ICE and SCPD puts our communities at risk. People in our community are already rightfully fearful due to the administration’s recent anti-immigrant executive orders and directives.”

Ernestina Saldaña of the group Sanctuary Santa Cruz was waiting outside the press conference and was pleased to hear the Police Department supports efforts to bolster policies against cooperation with federal agencies regarding immigration raids.

She said the news is astounding that the criminal investigations coincided with immigration raids.

“We feel betrayed,” she said. “We feel abused.”

2 thoughts on “Santa Cruz police: Homeland Security misled city with ‘gang’ raids that were immigration related

  1. How is this an issue? The city managers and mayors should be prosecuted if they don’t comply with immigration enforcement and are harbouring illegals.

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