Immigration officials on Tuesday said the 104 people arrested in Utah as part of a nationwide crackdown have one thing in common: ties to drug trafficking cartels or gangs.
A three-month operation led by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations targeted criminals and their associates in 168 cities. As part of Project Southern Tempest, Utah accounted for roughly one-sixth of all arrests.
"Utah really is at the forefront of this collaborative effort to battle these gangs," said Mark Cutchen, resident agent for Homeland Security Investigations. "Statistically speaking the results were incredible but also it sent a strong message to these transnational gangs ...They should not get comfortable in Utah."
Of the 104 Utah arrests, 86 people will be prosecuted on federal or state criminal charges ranging from kidnapping and robbery to drug, firearms and immigration violations, according to ICE.
When asked if those arrested were gang members documented by local police, Cutchen said the entire operation was based off intelligence gathered locally, making it the enforcement focused on specific people they had information on.
"This was certainly not a sweep of any kind. It was going after specific targets and/or their associates," Cutchen said. "We do make it a point to really prove that connection so that we can justify taking them in to custody."
Among those facing federal criminal charges in Utah, according to ICE, is Rodimiro Burquez-Cortez, a 34-year-old Mexican national and SureÃ±os gang associate.
Burquez-Cortez was arrested in Provo for re-entry after his February 2006 deportation, and for narcotics and weapon offenses. He has previous convictions for illegal re-entry, along with drug and weapons offenses.
The remaining 18 of those arrested are foreign nationals who have not be charged but will be processed for deportation. Cutchen said they could have easily been associates of the targets, collaborators, or found with them.
According to ICE, 73 of the 104 arrested were in the country illegally. Thirteen had been previously deported, 57 entered the U.S. illegally, and three overstayed their visas.
The operation began in early December and ended late February and targeted those with ties to more than a half dozen street gangs in metro areas â Salt Lake City, Provo, Ogden and St. George.
"By pooling our resources and our intelligence, we've succeeded in taking some very dangerous people off of the streets," said South Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Snyder in an ICE news release. "The gang members and drug dealers targeted in this operation have no regard for the law and their continued illegal activities degrade the quality of life in our communities."
While Southern Tempest marked one of the largest efforts of its kind nationally, more Utah arrests were made during a similar operation in August that netted 158 arrests.
In a press conference in Washington, D.C., ICE Director John Morton said the arrests would have big impacts on communities nationwide because of the violent nature of those arrested. He noted that beyond alleged drug dealing, many are suspected of multiple past offenses, including homicide.
The people "we arrested are not people we want walking the streets," Morton said. "They are not law-abiding, productive members of our communities."
â Lesley Mitchell contributed to this report.
Across the U.S.
• Since Operation Community Shield's inception in Feb. 2005, the enforcement effort has resulted in the arrests of 20,373 gang members and gang associates nationwide, including more than 500 people in Utah.
• The 678 gang members or associates arrested nationwide as part of Project Southern Tempest hailed from 133 different gangs.
• 447 were charged with criminal offenses.
• • 231 were administrative arrests.
• 322 had violent criminal histories.
• 421 were foreign nationals and 237 were U.S. citizens.
Source • U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement