Gwinnett gang raids are a win for Kemp administration, GBI says

The GBI Gang Task Force counted its latest victory this Tuesday, raiding two alleged drug and gun stash houses in Gwinnett County.

The raids capped the first year of operations for the task force created in response to Gov. Brian Kemp's campaign promise to "dismantle" street gangs in Georgia. The task force is made up of personnel from the GBI, the Atlanta Police Department, the Department of Community Supervision and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The collective has taken part in gang investigations around metro Atlanta in 2019, arresting alleged members of various organizations for violating the state’s anti-gang statute. Part of the goal of the broader attack on gangs is to make sure police and prosecutors around Georgia are trained and ready to use the statute, which makes it possible for anyone convicted of committing a crime for or in coordination with a gang to get five to 15 years added to their sentence.

Because the task force is just getting started, it’s hard to say what the long-term result of its existence will be, but the GBI sees the Gwinnett County raids as a good example of what the group can do and will continue to do.

“This case doesn’t get made without the directive from the governor’s office and (GBI Director Vic) Reynolds,” said Ken Howard, the task force’s GBI special agent in charge. “This is one of multiple cases that we’ve been successful in. We’ve got more than I can count in the pipeline. We’ve got more than we can work, to be honest with you,” Howard told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Agents kept watch on the two stash houses, which are off Cruse Road outside Lawrenceville, for six months or so, building the case. The authorities learned the men overseeing the homes were alleged members of subsets of the Sureños gang, which started in Southern California (the gang’s name is Spanish for “southerners”). The gang is now considered international because of its spread to Latin America and is sometimes known as Sur 13.

On Tuesday, when authorities raided the stash house in a duplex on Ferrite Loop, they discovered the unit was equipped with high-definition security cameras, microphones and monitors inside so the occupants could see and hear anyone approaching. Howard said the system clearly tipped off Damion Raye Martinez because the 27-year-old bolted out the back door.

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Martinez, a longtime Gwinnett resident who according to jail records has been arrested repeatedly over the past decade, was apprehended after a brief foot chase.

At the other stash house on Bethesda Court, officers uneventfully arrested Jorge Omar Rosales, 31, who is also a longtime local with an extensive history at the jail.

More arrests are expected as the investigation continues, according to the GBI.

After executing search warrants at both houses, the task force reported seizing “an arsenal of firearms,” including a .223-caliber rifle, handguns, an Uzi pistol, a sawed-off shotgun and 100-round drum magazines. The GBI said it also discovered 10 pounds of suspected methamphetamine, 2 pounds of suspected marijuana and “gang paraphernalia.”

Martinez and Rosales were released from state prison earlier this year on parole, according to Department of Corrections records. Both were serving time for possession of meth with intent to distribute, among other crimes.

The state parole board assisted in the suspects’ capture, the GBI said. The men now face gang charges, as well as meth trafficking and gun charges. Both are held without bond.

No one quite knows what the result will have on the gang's operations. Sureños has been a presence in the Atlanta area since 1995, according to previous statements from federal prosecutors. The founder of the local group went to prison in 1998 and was eventually deported, but the gang, whose structure has been called loose, pressed on without him. Sureños members have been involved ever since in shootings, murders and the drug business around metro Atlanta.

In 2017, Elijah Rodriguez, a "high-ranking" member of the gang, was convicted of murder in the 2015 death of Kevin Rivera in Gwinnett County, according to the district attorney's office. Rivera had been shot and robbed of "a large amount of methamphetamine" two weeks before his death, and then he got into a fight with Rodriguez. After his arrest, Rodriguez was caught orchestrating large meth deals from his cell at the Gwinnett jail.

The gang went on without Rodriguez too.

In the neighborhoods around the Lawrenceville stash houses, the GBI Gang Task Force leader said many residents fear the gang.

Howard knows Sureños, like many gangs, is resilient and may only view this week’s raids as a temporary setback. “I’m not naive enough to think it’s going to have a long-term impact on the gang as a whole and their ability to traffic in narcotics and weapons,” said the special agent.

At the very least, Howard said he hopes the raids and the arrests will send a message to residents in the Cruse Road area that the authorities will protect them from Sureños.