Arrests made in murder, gun, drug cases following 2-year investigation in Contra Costa Co.

A two-year-long operation by an FBI task force has resulted in the arrests of 11 street gang members in connection with the killings of four people, and 15 others face federal charges on various drug and weapons trafficking felonies in Concord and other parts of Contra Costa County, federal and county officials said Tuesday.

The arrests come after an investigation led by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Concord Police Department and federal Drug Enforcement Administration, as part of the FBI's Safe Streets Task Force. The investigations centered on Sureno street gang activity centered on Concord's Monument Boulevard corridor.

The FBI task force's two-year Operation Boulevard Blues culminated in a major operation last Thursday resulting in 31 arrests coming from a total of 34 search warrants across Contra Costa County. 

The Contra Costa County District Attorney's Office said Tuesday that Michael Valdez, 24; Andrew Cervantes, 25; and Daniel Rodriguez, 29, have each been charged with two counts of murder and one count each of conspiracy and street gang conspiracy in the killing of Marcos Villazon on Nov. 21, 2015, and of Luis Estrada on Nov. 30, shot twice in the head with a .40 caliber handgun -- allegedly by Valdez, according to the complaint -- at Hillcrest Park in Concord.

The complaint said Estrada had spoken earlier to police about an unspecified matter, and that Rodriguez and Valdez had seen the resulting police report.

Separately, Rafael Arturo Lopez, 31, and Juan Barocio Jr., 27, both face one count each of murder, conspiracy and street gang conspiracy in the April 17, 2014 killing of Victor Gutierrez, described as a Norteno gang member in the criminal complaint, as he walked along Adelaide Street in Concord.

And in the third murder case, Antonio Mendez Gonzalez, 26; Aurelio Mendez, 24; Jose Ignacio Ochoa, 25; Marcos Antonio Ochoa, 26; Jose Cisneros-Naranjo, Jr., 23, and Luis Manuel Cruz, 24, face one count each of murder, conspiracy and street gang conspiracy in the Sept. 12, 2015 shooting death of Erick Cruz at an apartment on Meadow Lane in Concord.

According to the federal complaint, also announced Tuesday, the alleged drug and weapons sales occurred across Contra Costa County, but primarily in Concord, with numerous transactions occurring in a shopping center parking lot at 1500 Monument Blvd.

According to the complaint, Sureno gang members had "claimed control over this shopping center," referring to it as "The Block" or "The Box." Gang members described the center to undercover officers as a kind of "one-stop shop" for guns and drugs, the U.S. Attorney's Office said Tuesday.

Of the 15 federal suspects, ranging in age from 18 to 42, 13 are in custody, and two were still being sought, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office. A total of 42 firearms were recovered at the various search warrant locations.

"Throughout this investigation, ATF has worked side by side with our partners to fulfill ATF's mission of protecting the public by investigating the criminal misuse and trafficking of firearms in the Contra Costa County area," said Special Agent in Charge Patrick Gorman, San Francisco Field Division, ATF, in a statement Tuesday. "In April 2019, ATF began working with the Concord Police Department and then with other agencies to address problematic gang activity that was occurring within Contra Costa County." 

Added U.S. Attorney David Anderson, "(Tuesday's) charges explode the myth of the non-violent drug dealer. Where we find drugs, we almost always find guns. What is particularly appalling about these charges is that the defendants did not even bother to hide the guns or drugs. Rather, the defendants allegedly peddled their products in broad daylight in public spaces."

The U.S. Attorney's Office of Northern California will prosecute the federal weapons and drug charges, while the Contra Costa County District Attorney's Office will prosecute the murder cases.