A map shown to the Santa Maria City Council this week shows the reach of the violent MS-13 gang, which authorities believe is responsible for a surge in homicides in the city. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

After sitting mostly quiet amid criticism fired at him and his agency for months, Santa Maria’s police chief this week shared more details about a multi-agency investigation into a violent international gang terrorizing the community and committing multiple homicides. 

Chief Ralph Martin’s report during the City Council meeting Tuesday focused on Operation Matador, which led to the arrests on March 3 of 16 alleged members of the MS-13 gang.

“The investigation actually was months in the making due to the unprecedented rise in homicides beginning in July of 2015, just eight months ago,” Martin said. 

“We in the department understood these homicides were not just a local street gang issue, but rather a new wave of violence never before seen in Santa Maria,” he added. 

From December 2014 through January 2016, the city recorded 21 slayings, many of which were believed to be gang-related. 

Police also said six other homicides were prevented during the investigation.

The chief showed the City Council a map with multiple red dots depicting killings and a few yellow ones showing shootings where the victims survived.

Those arrested in Operation Matador have not been charged with specific homicides, but were taken into custody on suspicion of conspiracy to commit murder with special allegations regarding gang involvement. 

Police Chief Ralph Martin showed the City Council a map pinpointing the homicides and shootings that have occurred in Santa Maria over the last year.

Police Chief Ralph Martin showed the City Council a map pinpointing the homicides and shootings that have occurred in Santa Maria over the last year. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

“Although they have not been charged with these crimes yet, we believe that these crimes are attributed to MS-13,” he said of the map showing 13 homicides and five other shootings. 

Santa Maria police are working with a number of other agencies to link defendants to some of the other crimes, including to prove forensically a connection to a specific shooting.

“We believe there were four or five guns used in all of these,” he said.

A number of weapons seized by investigators are similar to the type of weapons used in the killings, Martin said, adding that investigators are still running ballistics tests to determine if they were connected.

MS-13 stands for Mara Salvatrucha, with mara being a slang term that stands for gang, group or clique. It stems from the word marabunta, a type of fierce ant dominant in Central America, the chief said.

Salvatrucha means guerrillas or also stands for street smart and fierce, he added. 

He showed the council a map detailing the prevalence of the gang in many Central American nations.

Those arrested in the Santa Maria operation came from El Salvador and Honduras, officials said earlier.

A few nations in the region don’t have MS-13 because they “have done an exceptional job eradicating MS-13 out of their countries,” he added.

But MS-13 operates in most of the United States, with heavy presence in the southwest and East Coast, including North and South Carolina plus Virginia.

Four weeks before Operation Matador, a similar operation led to more than three dozen arrests of MS-13 members in Boston, the chief said.

The MS-13 gang allegedly is responsible for a large drug trade in the areas of Chelsea and other areas around Boston, Martin said.

“So it kind of gives you an idea of their reach there,” Martin said, adding that MS-13 members are believed to even be in Hawaii and Alaska. 

Law enforcement sources last summer had hinted at the possible involvement of MS-13 as the number of murders spiked, some having the especially violent traits of the gang.

Santa Maria isn’t alone in the dramatic increase, according to Martin. In the same time period, Salinas saw 40 homicides and 150 shootings, Martin said. 

“So we’re seeing this in a number of areas, not just Santa Maria,” Martin said. “As I stated earlier they came here to set up shop and make a statement.”

Most of the defendants in the case appeared in court two weeks ago, and will return Friday. 

A defendant captured in Ohio is fighting extradition to California, the chief said. If a defendant continues to fight extradition, authorities will seek a governor’s warrant to have him sent to the West Coast.

“I’m confident we will be successful in the prosecution, and we’re going to continue to do everything we can to connect them to the crime through forensics and people coming forward,” he added.

As the homicides happened, the chief and City Council were criticized during meetings with angry residents.

Mayor Alice Patino said she has received calls and comments since reports of Operation Matador, with many people expressing pride in the Police Department.

Patino said it was difficult for the council members not to respond although they knew a multi-agency task force was working to solve the crimes. 

“I’m so proud of our entire Police Department and how they worked together on this,” Patino said. 

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at jscully@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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Janene Scully | Noozhawk North County Editor

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at jscully@noozhawk.com.