The largest illegal cache of machine guns ever seized in the United States in connection with Colombian drug activity was uncovered by Ventura County law enforcement officials last summer but kept secret at the urging of federal authorities, The Times has learned.
Ten M-60 machine guns, each capable of holding down a 220-man rifle company, were confiscated by the Simi Valley Police Department and the Ventura County district attorney's office.
The powerful automatic weapons were seized during a raid that followed the breakup of a Colombian cocaine ring operating out of the Simi Valley area.
According to federal sources, the guns are believed to have been purchased illegally in the United States and moved to Southern California for eventual shipment to the outlaw leaders of Colombia's Medellin cocaine cartel.
The seizure of the M-60s, the guns used on Huey helicopter gunships during the Vietnam War and by the character Rambo in several Sylvester Stallone movies, followed the seizure of $2.5 million in cash from a Colombian money-laundering ring in Simi Valley and the subsequent seizure of 2,068 pounds of cocaine from the same group last August.
One source who provided The Times with a detailed account of the gun seizure said officials confiscated the weapons about a week after the drug seizure, the largest in Ventura County history, and took the guns from a storage area in Los Angeles County to the Simi Valley police station.
Under tight security, according to one source familiar with a continuing federal investigation in the case, the machine guns were placed in a jail cell in Simi Valley along with the cocaine that had been seized the previous week. The cell was reportedly welded shut while officials contacted federal authorities.
Agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were quickly dispatched to Simi Valley, according to several sources, and promptly removed the machine guns to Washington for examination, urging local officials to cancel plans for a press conference pending the conclusion of an investigation into the origin of the guns.
According to sources, the machine guns were fully operable and could have been used by the drug lords of Colombia on an immediate basis if they had been shipped to Colombia, possibly by a route that would have included a simple truck passage across the Mexican border.
"There are supposed to be two radical cuts on weapons like this to make them inoperable if they are not going to be used by the military," one source said. "It appeared that these guns had been cut once and welded back together by a master gunsmith."
One federal source told The Times that local officials agreed to keep the gun seizure secret partly in the interest of helping the ensuing federal investigation and partly because of a blunt warning that future cooperation between federal and local officials would be jeopardized by any publicity.
Maintaining the secrecy that has surrounded the seizure since last August, Simi Valley police refused comment this week and denied knowledge of any confiscated machine guns.
"All I can tell you at this point is that we have an ongoing investigation and we can't make any statements," said Andy McCluskey, Simi Valley Police Department spokesman. "I don't know anything about any machine guns."
When told that The Times was planning to publish a report on the gun seizure, Ventura County District Attorney Michael D. Bradbury did issue a brief statement confirming the record haul of high-powered weapons.
"I can confirm that my office and the Simi Valley Police Department did seize a cache of M-60s, but I cannot discuss any details at the request of federal authorities," Bradbury said.
In Los Angeles, Bob Wall, assistant agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms for the Central District of California, also confirmed the seizure and called it the largest cache of M-60 machine guns ever seized in connection with Colombian drug activities in the United States.
"The Los Angeles Police Department seized two or three a couple of years ago, but this is the largest I have ever heard of," Wall said.
"These weapons are fully automatic, and I imagine they would cost a good deal of money on the black market," he said. "We are investigating where they came from and who might have been involved, and that investigation is continuing in coordination with the Ventura County sheriff's office."