FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- A massive multi-agency law enforcement operation led to the arrest of 43 people and the dismantling of a gang organization believed to be involved in several homicides, shootings and other crimes in the Fresno area.
Operation "No Fly Zone" involved detectives from the Fresno Police Department, the Fresno County Sheriff's Office, the Multi-Agency Gang Enforcement Consortium (MAGEC), the FBI, Homeland Security Investigations, and the California Department of Justice. The operation began five months ago in response to an increase in violent crime in the city.
Fresno Police Chief Paco Balderrama said it is the largest operation to take place in the department's history.
More than 2,000 personnel with federal, state and local agencies were involved in nearly six months of wiretap surveillance.
Officials said investigators wire-tapped multiple gang members around the clock. The nearly four dozen suspects arrested are linked to four to six murders in the city along with drug, weapon and human trafficking.
Balderrama said the operation stopped half a dozen planned shootings, including two potential mass shootings.
Investigators say they learned of a plan for a mass shooting at a crowded Fresno bar on April 2 and April 11. Balderrama said they increased the police presence near the bar those two nights to stop it.
"We know that they called it off because we were there. What would've happened if we weren't there? Well, I think there would've been a mass shooting," he said.
On Thursday, agents, including 25 SWAT teams, served three dozen search warrants and made the arrests. Four dozen guns were also seized.
Thirty-seven of the suspects face state charges, and six others face federal charges.
Balderrama said plans for the operation began after a shooting in April 2021. The chief said the shooting involved gang members in an area of Fresno they didn't frequent.
"Anytime something like that happens, our MAGEC investigators go out there and start pulling the intelligence. Just the fact that this was spreading to another part of the city made us feel, number one, it was a very violent act. Number two we felt they were maybe trying to expand their criminal network, and that is something we are not going to allow," Balderrama said.
Attorney General Rob Bonta said the collaboration between agencies was critical to the operation's success.
"We prevented multiple violent crimes, crimes in progress, crimes stopped in real-time," said Bonta, "Today we're making a dent, and tomorrow the same law enforcement officers who led this investigation, they're going to clock in to start the next one."
Mayor Jerry Dyer too thanked the collaborative effort from multiple agencies and spoke about what officers in the field face on a continuous basis.
"Sitting in hospitals, holding hands and praying with family members whose child has been struck by gunfire," he said.
Chief Balderrama said detectives noticed that the increased number of rounds fired during shootings was also a concern.
Balderrama said that while the operation was successful, stiffer penalties are needed to ensure that violent criminals stay in jail.
"It's the gang war. Simply complete disregard for human life. They don't care what side of town they're on. They're not intimidated by police because the consequences are very little. That's the scary part of this whole thing," he said.
District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp pointed out most of the suspects are repeat offenders, saying it's a battle to keep people incarcerated.
"Enough is enough," she said, "It is depraved and inhumane behavior that is acceptable in the gang culture, but it will never be acceptable to the law enforcement community in Fresno."
She emphasized the need for tougher sentencing and said there was a lack of support from politicians.
"The politicians who pretend to care about law and order with sound bites when tragedies occur or show up to say they care about victims during election seasons, are the ones who continue to support the weakened laws passed by the people who call themselves criminal justice reformers," she said.
Local officials echoed her sentiment.
"As a citizen of this county, as a citizen of this community we value accountability, we value allowing our children to run in the parks, play safely," said Kim Sanchez with the United States Attorney's Office.
Officers still expect to make another five arrests in connection to this operation.