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The Santa Maria Police Department on Thursday announced the arrests of 15 members or associates of the international gang MS-13 and detainment of 40 others who have been active or committed crimes in the Santa Maria area.

"The city of Santa Maria will no longer be a city where MS-13 or any other street gang can live or engage in a career criminal enterprise," Police Chief Ralph Martin said during an afternoon press conference at the Santa Maria Police Station.

"We know who they are. We know now where they are and what vehicles they drive, who they associate with. We know what they had for lunch yesterday."

The sting, which took place early Thursday morning and has been dubbed "Operation Matador," was a collaborative multi-agency effort that involved search warrants being served and arrests being made simultaneously in Santa Maria, Bakersfield and other cities.

At 3 a.m., 150 police officers, sheriff's deputies and federal agents joined the Santa Maria Police Department in overseeing and making the arrests.

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"Today, the Santa Maria Police Department is announcing that it has undertaken and concluded 'Operation Matador,' Chief Ralph Martin said. "It is a months-long, exhaustive investigation into the many recent homicides that have plagued Santa Maria and other cities."

Warrants were served by SWAT teams from Santa Maria, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department, San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Department and the Oxnard Police Department.

They simultaneously served warrants at 12 locations. Eight of those locations were in Santa Maria; two were in Bakersfield; one was in Oxnard; and one was in Columbus, Ohio.

All of those arrested are from El Salvador or Honduras, Martin said, although he would not report whether they were documented or undocumented individuals. 

He did say many of those detained by SMPD have been turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be processed according to their regulations.

Martin said he believes MS-13 moved to the area in the last couple of years to make a statement.

"I think they were trying to own the town," Martin said. "They came to Santa Maria to set up shop." 

Although the operation stemmed from the recent uptick in violent crime in Santa Maria, those arrested have yet be tied to any of the 18 homicides since the start of 2015.

"Right now, they’re being booked for conspiracy to commit murder on other conspiracies, so they have not been specifically charged with any of those, but we do anticipate that could come to fruition very soon," Martin said. 

He said Santa Maria's known street gangs only have been tied to two of the homicides since last summer, but the vast majority are believed to have been committed by MS-13.

During the investigations, however, six homicides were prevented in the past four weeks, Martin said, adding that he could not give specific details.

The arrests were made for conspiracy to commit murder with gang special allegations, active participation in a criminal street gang, crimes committed for the benefit of a criminal street gang and carrying a loaded firearm in public, among others.

The investigation is ongoing, and more suspects could be arrested, Martin said.

"This is only the beginning of our intent to continue our efforts to completely, unequivocally eradicate this organized group from existing in Santa Maria," Martin said.

Mayor Alice Patino said the operation was like no other in Santa Maria's history.

"I knew this day was going to come," Patino said. "We had so much confidence in our Police Department. I didn’t know when and didn’t know what I was going to say, because 'thank you' seems so trivial. But as mayor, I stand here today, so proud of our men and women of our Police Department."

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown praised the agencies involved and said this should serve as an example or what law enforcement officials are trained and able to accomplish. 

"When you can get a dozen locations, and have arrests and search warrants served simultaneously, when you can have the number of people arrested, the number of people detained, all of that done without a single incident occurring, without a single use of force occurring, that is a remarkable feat," he said.

He also made a statement to anyone who wants to come into Santa Barbara County to commit the type of heinous crimes that prompted the operation.

"We don't stand alone in this county when it comes to investigating, identifying, hunting down, arresting and bringing before the bar of justice those who would commit these types of evil deeds in any jurisdiction in Santa Barbara County," Brown said.

"Let that be a warning to anyone who is thinking or contemplating anything like this in the future."

San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson voiced continued support for efforts to crack down on gangs and violence in Santa Barbara County.

"This was a tremendous case and something that the citizens of Santa Maria should be proud of," Parkinson said. "We were proud to participate in this; we're proud to send the message that the borders don't stop at the Santa Maria bridge. They continue into San Luis Obispo County, and we will continue to fight this battle and work together as partners in making sure that any efforts to restart and continue with this activity is going to go with a very watchful eye."

Those arrested are expected to be arraigned in court Friday morning.

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Abby Hamblin covers city government in Santa Maria and Guadalupe for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow her on Twitter: @AbbyHamblin.

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