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OPERATION DEVIL’S DEN: 23 Charged, Dozens of Ghost Guns Recovered During Sweep In Southern California

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ESCONDIDO, CALIFORNIA – The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives’ San Diego Group IV Field Office and the Escondido Police Department announced today 23 defendants were charged on various narcotics- and firearms-related charges, culminating in the seizure of 113 firearms with most of the guns being privately made firearms, more commonly referred to as “Ghost Guns” following an 18-month investigation.

This ATF and Escondido PD proactive investigation referred to as “Operation Devil’s Den,” targeted the activity of some of the most violent and active gangs operating in and around the city of Escondido to include members of the Diablos, Westside, and Florencia 13 gangs. These targets were convicted felons making firearms to include machine guns (using machine gun conversion devices commonly referred to as “switches” and “drop-in auto sears”) and selling those firearms without a federal firearms license. Switches are designed to convert semi-automatic pistols to fire as a fully automatic weapon, and drop-in auto sears convert rifles to fully automatic weapon.  It is illegal to possess switches and drop-in auto sears.

The investigation resulted in 23 defendants; 113 guns seized including: 71 pistols, six rifles, 14 machine guns, 19 machine gun conversion kits (33 machine guns in total), two shotguns, one silencer; and narcotic seizures of 15.5 pounds of methamphetamine, 115 grams of fentanyl, 20 grams of ecstasy, and 5 grams of cocaine.

The joint investigation involved 38 controlled purchases of firearms and narcotics using undercover agents and police officers, as well as confidential informants. Investigative techniques utilized in this investigation included extensive surveillance, which also yielded key evidence capturing an attempted murder.

“This joint investigation is another exemplary illustration of ATF’s commitment to creating safer communities,” said ATF Los Angeles Field Division Special Agent in Charge Monique Villages. “ATF is working nonstop with our local law enforcement partners to disrupt the private manufacturing of firearms and machine gun conversion devices. 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. The same criminals making and trafficking their own firearms are some of the same criminals trafficking the conversion devices.”

In 2021, ATF seized 1,576 machinegun conversion devices as evidence through the course of its investigations. That was a 438 percent increase from 2020.

From Jan. 1, 2016, through Dec. 31, 2021, there were approximately 45,240 suspected privately made firearms reported to ATF nationwide as having been recovered by law enforcement from potential crime scenes. This included firearms associated with 629 homicides or attempted homicides. This number grew from 1,758 privately made firearms in 2016 to 19,344 firearms in 2021.

“The Escondido Police Department places a high priority on combating violent crime and keeping our community safe,” said Escondido Police Department’s Interim Chief David Cramer. “An integral part of that endeavor is the partnerships we maintain with other law enforcement agencies. We are proud of the collaboration with our federal partners to keep dangerous and illegal weapons out of the hands of prohibited persons.”

“With the extensive proliferation of ghost guns, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has redoubled its efforts to prosecute federal crimes involving firearms. We greatly appreciate the work of our federal, state, and local partners in protecting our communities and their outstanding work on these cases.” said U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California Randy Grossman.

About one-third of the criminal cases that resulted from Operation Devil’s Den are being prosecuted by the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office. The DA’s Office is reporting an uptick in gang-related cases it has filed, from 368 in 2020 to 465 in 2021.

“This operation demonstrates that we continue to grapple with an increase in gang-motivated shootings and the ongoing proliferation of ‘ghost guns’– firearms that are usually untraceable,” said San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan. “The increase in our prosecutions paint a disturbing picture of gang violence on the rise in the county. We will continue to collaborate and cooperate with our law enforcement partners in the North County—and across San Diego County—to address gang violence through prosecution and prevention.”

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. Therefore, there was no traditional arrest of the defendants all at once.

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OPERATION DEVIL’S DEN FEDERAL DEFENDANTS’ CHARGES

Albert Gutierrez-Bustos, 22, Coachella

Conspiracy to Deal Firearms Without a License Title 26 U.S.C. § 371, 922(a)(1)(A) and 924 (a)(1)(D)

Transfer of Firearm in Violation of National Firearm Act Title 26 U.S.C. § 5861 (d) and 5871

Kevin Lemus, 21, Escondido

Distribution of Methamphetamine Title 21 U.S.C. § 841 (a) (1)

Cristopher Chavero, 31, Escondido

Conspiracy to Deal Firearms Without a License Title 26 U.S.C. § 371, 922(a)(1)(A) and 924 (a)(1)(D)

Rocky Trinidad, 29, Escondido

Conspiracy to Deal Firearms Without a License Title 26 U.S.C. § 371, 922(a)(1)(A) and 924 (a)(1)(D)

Adrian Alvarado, 25, Escondido

Conspiracy to Deal Firearms Without a License Title 26 U.S.C. § 371, 922(a)(1)(A) and 924 (a)(1)(D)

Justin Cartwright, 32, Escondido

Felon in Possession of Ammunition Title 18 U.S.C. § 922 (g)(1)

Possession of Methamphetamine with Intent to Distribute Title 21 U.S.C. § 841 (a)(1)

Charles Munoz, 23, Escondido

Possession of Cocaine with intent to Distribute Title 21 U.S.C § 841 (a) (1)

Use and Carrying a Firearm in the Commission of a Drug Trafficking Crime Title 18 U.S.C. 924 (c)(1)

Martin Ochoa, 35, Escondido

Distribution of Methamphetamine Title 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1)

Julio Segura, 26, San Diego 

Felon in Possession of a Firearm and Ammunition Title 18 U.S.C. § 922 (g)(1)

Dealing Firearms Without a License Title 18 U.S.C. § 922(a)(1)(A)

*One federal defendant, who is charged with Distribution of Methamphetamine Title 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) is not yet in custody. There is a current warrant for his arrest.

*One federal defendant’s name is not being released due to the ongoing investigation.

These federal defendants have pled guilty to the following:

George Lerena, 22, Coachella

Transfer of Firearm in Violation of National Firearm Act Title 26 U.S.C. § 5861 (d) and 5871

Alan Cazaras-Miranda, 23, Coachella

Transfer of Firearm in Violation of National Firearm Act Title 26 U.S.C. § 5861 (d) and 5871 Distribution of Methamphetamine Title 21 U.S.C § 841 (a)(1)

Leonel Buenrostro, 32, Escondido

Felon in Possession of a Firearm Title 18 U.S.C. § 922 (g)(1)

Miguel Alvarez, 34, Escondido

Felon in Possession of Ammunition 18 USC § 922 (g)(1)

STATE DEFENDANTS’ CHARGES

Jose Bora, 39, Escondido

State Firearms and narcotics charges

Jason Cardenas, 18, Escondido

State assault, firearm, and burglary charges

Elijah Salazar, 18, Escondido

State assault, firearm, and burglary charges

Raymundo Figueroa, 27, Escondido

State firearms charges

Pedro Manriquez, 28, Escondido

State firearms and accessory charges

Adalberto Ortiz, 28, Escondido

State attempted murder, gang, and firearms charges

Ricardo Ponce, 33, Escondido

State firearms charges

Check Velasco, 20, Escondido

State narcotics charges

The statutory maximum penalties are five years in prison for engaging in the business of dealing or manufacturing firearms without a license; 5 to 30 years consecutive mandatory minimum depending on the circumstances for carrying, using or possession a firearm in connection with a crime of violence or drug trafficking; up to five years in federal prison for conspiracy to defraud the U.S.; 10 years in prison for illegal possession of a machine gun; 10 years for felon in possession of a firearm; not more than three years of supervised release, and a fine.

This case was investigated by the ATF and Escondido PD. The Southern District of California United States Attorney Office is prosecuting the federal charges and the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office is prosecuting the state charges.


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