A federal grand jury has indicted 22 defendants for organized Mexican theft scheme that targeted upscale shopping malls in the San Diego area and nationwide and stole more than $20 million worth of merchandise.

According to ice.gov news release, following a long-term investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s and Homeland Security Investigations, twelve of the defendants named in the indictment were arrested during a carefully coordinated operation in the San Diego area involving more than 250 federal and state law enforcement officers.

As part of law enforcement actions, detectives searched three homes in San Diego, Lemon Grove, and Chula Vista. The searches resulted in the confiscation of about $30,000 in cash, along with a dozen large trash bags filled with new clothing, the merchandise tags, and security devices which are still attached to the clothing. The stolen goods included items from Guess, Victoria’s Secret, Hollister Co, Abercrombie & Fitch and Express, and brands such as Armani, Calvin Klein, Hurley, Adidas and Kenneth Cole. Authorities also recovered a significant amount of the high-end brand new Louis Vuitton shoes and boxes of security sensors that had been removed from clothing. According to U.S. Attorney’s Office

A federal grand jury has indicted 22 defendants for organized Mexican theft scheme that targeted upscale shopping malls in the San Diego area and nationwide

The indictment alleges the defendants formed gang of thieves to steal goods from retail stores throughout the United States. The stolen items were then transported across the US border and sold in Tijuana Mexico. According to the indictment, on October. 23, 2013, defendant Maria Angelica Mendez Valdivia had more than $480,000 worth of merchandise stolen from at least 57 retail stores. The indictment states the goods were then illegally transported to Mexico and sold to an alleged “fence,” defendant Sara Portilla, who is indicted for selling the stolen goods from a store she operates in Tijuana.

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The highly organized Mexican theft scheme, which detectives believe has been in operation for over a decade, assigned members of its theft gang specific roles. The group leaders selected the stores to target, scouted the locations, and coordinated the actions of other gang members using mobile phones and hand signals. The team’s so-called “mules” smuggled the stolen merchandise out of stores in “booster bags” fitted with metallic linings designed to defeat anti-theft sensors. And finally, the team’s “blockers” hindered store employees from seeing the ongoing theft, either by obstructing their view, distracting them, or by physically preventing the employees from responding.

When it was necessary, the gang “mules” used force against store employees, customers, and law enforcement to escape. For example, according to the indictment claims that in November 2009 defendant Sergio Manuel Montano Nava knocked over an infant in its stroller and injured the child’s father to avoid being arrested for a theft at a Hollister store in Illinois.

A federal grand jury has indicted 22 defendants for organized Mexican theft scheme that targeted upscale shopping malls in the San Diego area and nationwide

In November 2012, defendants Jose Damazo Herrera, Robin Macias, and others drove vehicles through a crowd while fleeing a theft from a Hollister store in San Diego. And in another incident in March 2013, one of the defendants allegedly grabbed a loss prevention officer by the throat and threw her to the ground while running from a theft at Abercrombie & Fitch in National City.

“The mall is supposed to be a safe place for families to shop, eat and enjoy themselves,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Alana Robinson. “Instead, a prolific and violent gang of thieves has stolen millions and millions of dollars in merchandise as well as peace of mind from mall employees and customers. With this action, we are protecting customers and businesses both economically and physically, and we are restoring and preserving the safety of our community gathering spots.”

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The criminal indictment lists 38 thefts allegedly linked to the Mexican theft scheme that occurred at various clothing department stores in Southern California and nationwide. The California locations included retailers in San Diego, National City Escondido, Oxnard, Ventura, Camarillo, Mission Viejo, Orange, Canoga Park and Northridge. Thefts linked to the scheme are also believed to have occurred in Las Vegas, Nevada, Vancouver, Washington, and Frederick, Maryland. Typically each of the thefts alleged in the indictment resulted in losses of tens of thousands dollars in merchandise.

A federal grand jury has indicted 22 defendants for organized Mexican theft scheme that targeted upscale shopping malls in the San Diego area and nationwide

“Crimes that cross jurisdictional lines can be challenging for any one agency to investigate,” said San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman. “It takes a partnership and commitment between agencies at all levels to collapse the most sophisticated crime schemes that exist today. The collaboration we have here in San Diego between law enforcement agencies is second to none. I am so proud of the efforts in this complicated case to bring these thieves to justice.”

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The defendants face a variety of charges in this Mexican theft scheme including conspiracy to transport stolen goods across state lines and international borders – receiving stolen goods which have crossed state or international borders – and illegal re-entry after deportation. The maximum penalties for the charged offenses range from five to 20 years in prison and fines of up to $250,000.