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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A California police chief and a mayor accused federal agents Thursday of duping local officers assisting in the takedown of suspected members of a notorious El Salvador-based gang into helping make immigration arrests.
Santa Cruz is a so-called sanctuary city, which prohibits its police from cooperating with federal authorities investigating immigration violations.
Santa Cruz Police Chief Kevin Vogel and assistant chief Dan Flippo said Thursday that Department of Homeland Security officials lied when they assured them a Feb. 13 joint operation in the region would not include immigration-related arrests during the gang raids. Flippo said he learned a "number" of immigration arrests were made the next night when dozens of protesters disrupted a Santa Cruz City Council meeting to voice their displeasure.
But James Schwab, a spokesman for the San Francisco field office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said in a statement that agents did only what they agreed to before the raid, and that any suggestion otherwise are "completely false, reckless, and disturbing."
Santa Cruz police and immigration agents arrested 10 people allegedly associated with the MS-13 gang, also known as Mara Salvatrucha. Seven were charged with extortion and three with drug dealing. Some of those arrested have been connected to four Santa Cruz homicides, the chief said. The chief said the department no longer trusts DHS and will no longer work with the agency. ICE is a subsidiary of DHS.
"We can't cooperate with a law enforcement agency we cannot trust," Vogel said.
Flippo said the gang-related arrests were the culmination of a five-year investigation launched when a Santa Cruz resident called police to complain about gang members extorting local businesses. Flippo said his department enlisted the help of DHS because of the gang's notoriety and global reach. He said the raids were made Feb. 13 because it appeared gang members were planning a murder.
Flippo said at press conference Thursday that an additional 10 or more people agents encountered at the dozen residences raided Feb. 13 were arrested on immigration charges. Flippo says it appears most of them were later released after being ordered to wear GPS monitoring devices and given future court dates in immigration court.
Schwab, the federal spokesman, acknowledged that 11 people were detained on immigration charges, but that police had agreed before the raid that some foreign nationals might be briefly held until their identities and case histories could be determined. Schwab said that's exactly what happened, and 10 of the 11 immigrants were released. One of them remains in custody because of his criminal history and possible ties to the gang investigation.
Santa Cruz Mayor Cynthia Chase said she is "deeply disturbed and upset. I'm outraged." The police chief and mayor each apologized to city residents for unwittingly violating Santa Cruz's sanctuary city policy.
President Donald Trump threatened in January to withhold federal funding from some 400 cities nationwide that have adopted similar policies.
But federal officials also denied that the new administration had anything to do with their plans or actions.
Ryan L. Spradlin, the special agent-in-charge for Homeland Security Investigations in San Francisco, said that "it's unfortunate when politics get intertwined with a well planned and executed public safety operation."
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