Feds charge two dozen Little Havana gang members behind spree of crime, violence

A Little Havana neighborhood attracting deep-pocketed real estate speculators has been a magnet for gun-toting drug dealers terrorizing the area west of downtown Miami, law enforcement authorities said Thursday.

Hoping to root out the violence, federal prosecutors charged 24 gang suspects with various crimes ranging from operating a criminal enterprise to cocaine trafficking to drive-by shootings — defendants with criminal histories who have been in and out of the state system, authorities said.

“Today the children of 10th Avenue and 4th Street are able to play out in their front yards,” U.S. Attorney Ariana Fajardo Orshan said at a news conference, citing the East Little Havana neighborhood “terrorized” by gang members and their rivals over the past five years.

Fajardo highlighted a series of drive-by shootings carried out in a turf war last year by competing drug dealers, including a teen who was shot after midnight while sleeping in his bed. She said that while none of the innocent victims were killed, some suffered lasting wounds, including disfigurement.

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On Thursday, December 13, 2018 U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, Ariana Fajardo Orshan, right, with local and federal officials at her side, announces the unsealing of federal charges today against 24 members and associates of a drug trafficking and money laundering organization operating in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami-Dade County, Florida.

Carl Juste cjuste@miamiherald.com

“An innocent bystander was struck in their home that should have been safe,” said Ari Shapira, special agent in charge of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which led the investigation.

Fajardo, Shapira and other law enforcement brass stood along with Miami Mayor Francis X. Suarez, who praised the teamwork behind the Project Safe Neighborhood initiative targeting crime in Miami-Dade’s most violent neighborhoods — from Miami Gardens to Liberty City to Overtown. Little Havana, a neighborhood known for welcoming waves of Cuban immigrants and attracting tourists to its Hispanic restaurants, has not escaped the scourge of gang violence, either.

Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina said the goal is to make the city’s streets safer, pointing out that the East Little Havana area is “a neighborhood in transition.”

The federal investigation dubbed “Operation Havana Ghost,” which led to Thursday’s multiple arrests, also resulted in the seizure of 1.5 kilos of cocaine, several grams of crack, 26 pounds of marijuana, 4 assault rifles, 10 pistols, 10 extended magazines, 10 semi-automatic firearms, a short-barrel rifle and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, authorities said.

“We just removed some people who were terrorizing our community,” said Miami-Dade Police Chief Juan Perez

According to an indictment, the Little Havana gang’s ringleaders were Ulyssess Cabrera, aka “Big Cuz,” and Bernardo Quinonez, aka “Macho,” both 30. They are accused of not only running the gang but organizing a network of drug suppliers, distributors and enforcers.

Street violence flared up last year when a former gang member, Gilbert Cruz Baez, formed a rival group and started penetrating the Little Havana territory. That led to a string of drive-by shootings in October and November of last year, according to the indictment.

“When rival drug dealers threatened the territory controlled by their criminal enterprise or when individuals questioned their authority, Cabrera and Quinonez allegedly directed armed members … to intimidate, maim and in some instances kill others,” the U.S. attorney’s office said. “As a result innocent bystanders were shot and sustained serious physical injuries.”

The investigation was launched last year by the federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force.

Federal prosecutors are seeking detention for almost all of the 24 defendants, who face a variety of charges that carry from 10 years to life in prison.