Santa Maria police scored a significant victory over gang activity in March 2016.
That was when law officers from multiple agencies swept through communities, rounding up gang members suspected of being involved in a rash of gang-related crimes.
It was called Operation Matador, and was the culmination of months of scrutiny of suspected members of the international gang MS-13. The operation was one of local law enforcement’s rare victories against gangs, with more than a dozen of the suspected gang members scooped up in local raids. The operation involved several other cities in California, and other states as well. Shortly after those arrests, a group of the local suspects were indicted by a Santa Barbara County criminal grand jury.
And finally, last week, a county Superior Court judge has ordered the defendants to enter their pleas.
We understand that justice can move painstakingly slowly, because prosecutors want to get it right, earn the conviction with solid evidence, and put the guilty perpetrators behind bars. But, frankly, a gap of two years between arrest and trial seems not to serve the core interests of justice.
And that is doubly true when those arrested belong to the international gang MS-13, which stands for Mara Salvatrucha, and is one of the most notoriously murderous gangs on the planet.
Santa Maria police began tracking suspected MS-13 activities in the city about a decade ago. The gang is believed to control the territories surrounding the 1000 blocks of Boone, Orange and Cook streets, according to a gang detective's declaration profiling the gang in court documents. Police spent months wiretapping the suspects’ phones and tracking them throughout the county, all of which led to the March 2016 Operation Matador sweep.
The timing of the judge’s order allowing pleas to be entered is ironic, coming on the same day President Trump spoke to graduates at the FBI Academy, and among his remarks insisted MS-13 gang members should not be jailed in this country, but deported.
As has become the norm for this administration, the White House is sending dangerously mixed signals. On the one hand, Trump and his Justice Department are taking tough-on-crime positions. On the other hand, the president is suggesting that MS-13 crimes should not be prosecuted in this country. One has to wonder if the president’s stated position will influence plea decisions in the local MS-13 cases.
Our problem with lengthy delays between indictment and trial is that the cases tend to lose their immediacy, and when that sense of immediacy is lost, so, too, is the sense of urgency. The passage of time also serves to dull the memory of crimes for which these gang members are to be tried.
Those are crucial points, as the case for the men will reach its next step Feb. 16, nearly two years after the Operation Matador sweep. The defendants are expected to plead not guilty to 50 felony counts of murder, criminal conspiracy and street-gang enhancements. Twelve of the men are linked to 10 still-unsolved homicides that occurred from 2013 to 2016. It is also alleged that the group conspired to kill more than a dozen other people.
This is serious, third-world criminal activity that cannot be tolerated on our streets, and while we are certain there are institutional reasons for such delayed justice, there are few moral or ethical reasons it should take this long to bring murder suspects to trial.
The speedy-trial concept of the American legal system works both ways, for the accused and for those awaiting justice.