Three plead guilty to selling meth

tmiller@mercedsunstar.comJuly 11, 2013 

Three Merced County men pleaded guilty Monday in a Fresno courtroom to arranging the sale of methamphetamine to two men from Madera.

Gonzalo Esquivel, 34, and Efren Jiminez, 33, both of Los Banos, and Kenneth Hernandez, 30, of Dos Palos admitted selling about 2 ounces of the drug to Gustavo Moreno, 33, and David Torres, 33, both of Madera.

After the exchange, a California Highway Patrol officer discovered the meth during a traffic stop of the Madera men.

According to court documents, the men were members or associates of the Norteño criminal street gang, which originates from the Nuestra Familia prison gang.

Nuestra Familia uses the Norteños to sell drugs, according to a press news from the U.S. Department of Justice.

All five men were arrested during "Operation Red Zone," the largest gang sweep in Merced County history. The June 2011 operation was conducted by agents on 31 teams who served 72 arrest warrants at more than 50 locations, on charges ranging from attempted murder to drug trafficking.

The defendants face a minimum of 10 years in prison to a maximum sentence of life in prison and a $10 million fine. The sentences will be determined by U.S. District Court judges.

Jiminez is set to be sentenced Oct. 13; the others' sentences are scheduled for Sept. 30.

The Department of Justice recognized Esquivel and Moreno as two of the five high-ranking members of the Norteños arrested in Operation Red Zone. Law enforcement officers made 101 arrest during the sweep.

According to court documents, law enforcement officers conducted visual surveillance and phone tapping on the men beginning in September 2010.

The case was a joint investigation of federal, state and local agencies, including the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Office of Homeland Security Investigations, Merced Multi-Agency Gang Task Force and Los Banos Police Department, among others.

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