Gang members along the Wasatch Front may be finding themselves unarmed and friendless these days.
The FBI has arrested 37 Utah gang members and confiscated large quantities of guns, drugs and money during a yearlong undercover operation begun in May 1998. Seventeen of the arrests followed federal indictments.David Tubbs, the special agent in charge of the Salt Lake FBI office told reporters that members of at least five gangs have been arrested by a task force that includes FBI agents and local law enforcement officers.
Bags of drugs, wads of money and various firearms -- just a portion of the goods confiscated during the bust -- were displayed during a Friday press conference, where Tubbs declined to give the names of those arrested or any details of the undercover operation. Some investigations are still pending, and the FBI has several similar working operations, he said.
"Somebody somewhere out there is going to be spared some major injury due to the (confiscation) of these weapons," said Salt Lake Police Assistant Chief Larry Stott.
In all, the task force recovered cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin with a combined value of approximately $450,000. Stolen vehicles and other stolen property confiscated are valued in excess of $150,000.
The objective of the operation was to reduce the volume of gang members, drugs and guns on the street, Tubbs said. "Anybody can see an impact when this many guns are taken off the street."
About 70 guns were confiscated. Several of the shotguns displayed were missing serial numbers or had portions of the barrel or stock sawed off -- all violations of federal gun regulations.
An FBI agent displayed one handgun that a gang member had equipped with a laser sight.
Although the original target of the task force was the notoriously violent QVO street gang, a Salt Lake-based group, arrests were also made among the Tongan Crip Gangsters, 808, Bounty Hunter Bloods and West Side Crips.
Tubbs said gang problems spread as gang members in big cities move to smaller cities and reestablish their gangs. Most of the gang members arrested were local residents, he added.
Arrests during the yearlong project were made in the Salt Lake area and in other parts of Utah, though FBI representatives would not give specifics on how far away the operation spread.
Special operations like this one are necessary to curb gang violence in the Salt Lake area, said FBI special agent George Dougherty. "We're not stopping. This is just the beginning. We're letting them know this is our focus -- getting these violent criminals off the street."
Although the number of violent crimes in Utah is down, said Tubbs, the number will rise again unless the FBI and law enforcement agencies remain vigilant.
U.S. Attorney Paul Warner said the gang members will be prosecuted on various drug and illegal firearm possession charges and could face punishments of up to 20 years in prison.
As for other gang members, "They're going to be sought out. They're going to be prosecuted. Quite frankly, they're going to be pursued until this problem is solved," Warner said.