SAN DIEGO – Law enforcement officials today announced that a three-month campaign to reduce violent crime in San Diego County has resulted in the seizure of 165 firearms – including 82 privately-made weapons known as “ghost guns” – and the prosecution of 29 people.
The Privately Made Firearm Crime Reduction Project, which ran from February to May, was initiated to address gun violence and the proliferation of ghost guns in San Diego. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the San Diego Police Department used data analytics to determine areas where there was an increase in gun violence and where crime guns were being recovered. ATF and SDPD employed an intelligence-led policing effort throughout the 90-day initiative to determine where to place resources to have the greatest impact.
This partnership used a multitude of investigative techniques including undercover operations, surveillance, scouring social media accounts, and using confidential informants and undercover federal agents. Law enforcement personnel risked their lives during nearly 88 operations to get these guns out of the hands of criminals and make communities safer. These operations included undercover operations, search warrants, and arrests warrants. Those primarily targeted were individuals involved in the illegal possession, manufacture and sale of firearms, particularly ghost guns bearing no serial numbers or identifying marks who were selling them to people prohibited from owning guns.
Authorities reported results of the operation at a news conference today, where ATF agents displayed 81 firearms items seized during the operation. Those weapons included machine guns; Glock Switches – which are machinegun conversion devices; short-barrel rifles; pistols and silencers. A substantial number of seized weapons were fully automatic. In addition to the firearms, investigators also recovered approximately 66 pounds of methamphetamine, 1.4 kilograms of powder fentanyl, 4,300 fentanyl pills, and 2.25 kilograms of cocaine.
To date, 22 defendants are charged in federal court and an additional seven in state court with various gun and drug crimes; four other state cases are pending. Federal gun charges include Dealing in Firearms without a License; Possession of a Machine Gun; Felon in Possession of a Firearm; Assault of a Federal Agent; Possession of a Firearm in Furtherance of a Violent Crime and Possession of a Firearm in Furtherance of Drug Trafficking. Drug charges include distribution of fentanyl, methamphetamine, and cocaine.
Last year alone, there were approximately 20,000 suspected ghost guns reported to ATF as having been recovered by law enforcement in criminal investigations – a ten-fold increase from 2016. Because ghost guns lack the serial numbers marked on other firearms, law enforcement has an exceedingly difficult time tracing a ghost gun found at a crime scene back to an individual purchaser.
On a local level, the San Diego Association of Governments, the regional clearinghouse for crime data, received a federal grant through the Department of Justice to enhance its tracking of crimes that involve firearms around the region. This would include the use of a firearm in violent crime and providing information regarding where these crimes are occurring, tracking calls for service related to the use of firearms, and interviewing arrestees regarding their use of firearms and ghost guns.
SANDAG has reported that ghost guns have been a significant and growing challenge around San Diego County in recent years. According to SANDAG, there was a 401 percent increase in ghost guns recovered by local law enforcement agencies in San Diego County from 2019 to 2021.
In the City of San Diego, the police department reports that about one-quarter of the guns recovered at crime scenes and during investigations during 2021 were privately manufactured and lacked serial numbers.
Preliminary numbers indicate that San Diego County law enforcement seized fewer ghost guns in 2022, but the overall rate of ghost gun seizures is still significantly higher than a few years ago.
“Our number one priority is keeping our residents safe, and gun crimes are a direct threat to that safety,” said U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman. “Every illegal gun that is removed from criminal hands makes us safer, and for that reason, this operation was a tremendous success.” Grossman thanked the prosecution team for their dedication to these cases; and especially agents and officers from ATF and San Diego Police Department who put their lives on the line during this very successful operation.
“The Privately Made Firearms Crime Reduction Project was conducted so ATF could leverage its federal resources to attack gun crime in San Diego,” said ATF Los Angeles Field Division Special Agent in Charge Christopher Bombardiere. “ATF collaborated with its our partners and successfully focused their efforts on violent individuals who were making and selling extremely powerful firearms without a license. In 90 days, ATF seized 165 firearms with almost half being privately made firearms and about a third being unregistered National Firearms Act (NFA) weapons. Those consisted of machine guns, machine gun conversion devices, short-barreled rifles, and silencers. This initiative and other ongoing investigations will continue to make our community safer.”
“The proliferation of drugs and firearms in our communities is an issue the San Diego Police Department is laser-focused on,” said San Diego Police Department Chief David Nisleit. “As one of the first in the nation to have a dedicated team for ghost gun investigations in the City of San Diego, SDPD is proud to have been a part of such a successful operation that gets drugs, firearms and the criminals that sell and manufacture them off our streets. The efforts by all involved demonstrate the seriousness and effectiveness of our collaborative work to combat this issue.”
In 2021, the San Diego Police Department established a dedicated team to address the proliferation of personally manufactured firearms, or “ghost guns,” in San Diego. One of the first of its kind in the nation, the Ghost Gun Apprehension Team has been tasked with investigating unlawful ghost gun manufacturing and sales cases. The team serves as a resource to patrol, area station detectives and specialized units when ghost guns are discovered during an arrest or investigation.
“The District Attorney’s Office is committed to continuing to work with our state and federal partners on targeted operations like this one that make our neighborhoods safer,” said San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan. “In addition to the illegal guns seized, thousands of fentanyl-laced pills and dozens of pounds of meth were recovered, keeping these illegal and dangerous drugs off the streets and preventing potentially fatal overdoses.”
In this operation, examples of federal cases include these allegations which are contained in charging documents:
– Christian Ferrari, a 22-year-old active-duty U.S. Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton, was charged with illegally selling ghost guns to undercover ATF agents in several transactions. These guns included 12 AR-type rifles. The agents also placed an order for an additional 10 rifles and explained they were for an associate who would be taking the firearms into Mexico. Ferrari responded, “alright, perfect,” and quoted the agents $10,000 for those 10 rifles. (23-mj-01618)
– Giovanni Diaz was convicted of robbery in 2022. In March 2023, Diaz began selling fentanyl pills and guns to an ATF undercover agent. Over the course of two weeks, Diaz sold 1,400 fentanyl pills and three ghost guns to the agent. (23-cr-000872)
– Jonathan Manuel Flores was charged with assaulting a federal officer with a Glock 9 mm pistol and brandishing a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence. According to a federal complaint, on February 17, 2023, ATF agents conducted an undercover operation in San Diego to purchase a machine gun, specifically a Glock pistol with a full auto conversion device, commonly known as a “Glock Switch,” for $2,400. During the undercover operation the defendant insisted that the gun deal take place in their car. The undercover agent got into the back seat of the parked car as requested. As the undercover agent finished counting the cash, the defendant allegedly pulled back the slide on his pistol to make it ready to shoot and pushed the muzzle into the undercover agent’s ribcage. He then said, “Get the f—- out of the car dog before I smoke you” while grabbing the cash from the agent’s hand. The agent quickly exited the vehicle and the sedan took off. (23-cr-0512)
*The charges and allegations contained in an indictment or complaint are merely accusations, and the defendants are considered innocent unless and until proven guilty.