NEW BEDFORD — More than 4o gang members or associates were arrested in a massive drug sweep of the city involving hundreds of federal, state, and local law enforcement personnel early Friday morning.
Forty-four members or associates of the Latin Kings street gang were arrested by more than 200 members of the FBI and state and local police on various drug charges in the early roundup, authorities said. No one was injured.
“The completion of this investigation by the Southeastern Massachusetts Gang Task Force displays our unified resolve to ensure that communities in this area are free from the scourge of gang violence,” said Richard DesLauriers, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston office.
Undercover drug purchases, electronic audio and video recordings, and physical surveillance were all employed in the 18-month investigation preceding the arrests, many of which took place just off Ashley Boulevard in northern New Bedford.
Mayor Jonathan F. Mitchell promised arrests like Friday’s would continue until the city is a safe place to live, and US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz echoed the sentiment.
“New Bedford isn’t open to this type of business,” Mitchell said.
It was the fourth and largest operation by the Southeastern Massachusetts Gang Task Force in its six years of operation. The task force focuses on investigations designed to take down entire gangs from regular members to the central command, DesLauriers said.
Sixteen of those arrested face federal drug charges, which carry minimum sentences of 20 to 40 years if convicted, Ortiz said. Of the 30 to be prosecuted by the state, at least 16 are charged with distribution of drugs within 1,000 feet of a school zone.
“As a result of today’s arrests, neighborhoods in New Bedford, Massachusetts, are safer now than they were mere hours ago,” DesLauriers said at a press conference Friday morning.
In the middle of the gang territory in northern New Bedford and under the shadow of the St. Anthony of Padua Church steeple, local residents were relieved by the arrests.
“Thank God,” said one woman who asked not to be named out of fear of retaliation. “That’s all I can say, thank God they’re gone.”
Other residents, however, were skeptical the arrests would have a lasting effect. Many asked that their names not be used.
“Unless it’s a murder warrant, they’ll get out of jail,” said a man in the area. “They’ll be back out Monday morning.”
Drug deals and prostitution are daily routines for the neighborhood, and violence is a part of life, he said. The only thing residents can do is deal with it and stay inside at night, he added.
“That’s how it is here. The daytime is OK; normal people are outside,” he said. “When the nighttime comes, though, the vampires come out. You just make your lifestyle fit the situation; you got to survive.”
New Bedford had enjoyed lower violent crime rates for several years following a 2006 task force operation against the Latin Kings that resulted in the arrest of 37 members or associates. The city had no homicides for nearly a year after that crackdown.
But in 2010 the city began seeing a sharp rise in violent crime and street-level drug sales, especially on the northern side, Ortiz’s office said.
The gang began reorganizing in 2010 and has maintained a violent presence in northern New Bedford while maintaining a lucrative drug market, according to an FBI affidavit.
Authorities said the three previous operations by the task force resulted in no acquittals.