A woman who had close ties to prominent Salinas and Watsonville gangs has been sentenced to nearly six years in prison following last year's Operation Garlic Press Sweeps.

The case of Rosa Martinez, 32, has been viewed by some in law enforcement as a classic example of the consequences of the supporting roles woman often play when they get involved with gangs.

Martinez was sentenced last week to 70 months in federal prison after pleading guilty earlier this year to possessing methamphetamine with intent to sell, conspiracy, and aiding and abetting. After prison, she will be placed on four years supervised release, officials said.

Numerous letters of support submitted by her attorney show a network of women, some relations and some not, who described her rough background and said Martinez has been working hard to overcome her drug habit even, as she awaited trial, earning a certificate of leadership in a parenting program for incarcerated mothers.

Despite the pleas from supporters for leniency, on Nov. 15, Northern District Judge D. Lowell Jensen gave her the higher term that prosecutors had requested.

Northern District spokesman Jack Gillund said Martinez will begin serving her sentence immediately.

A former girlfriend and colleague of local Norteño and Nuestra Familia gang members, Martinez attracted the notice of local police and FBI agents ever since a violent schism among her lovers, family, and the gang took place seven years ago.

Her life was not unusual for women romantically involved with gang members, although for years law enforcement tended to look the other way and focus mainly on the men.

Local law enforcement officials say they need to learn more about the roles played by women associating with criminal gangs.

Salinas police chief Kelly McMillin said that during his years on the beat, he and fellow officers were familiar with women who held firearms and drugs for male gang members, "playing a supporting role."

But he said there still isn't enough known about the forces that lead to women's entanglement in that life.

"There is a national trend that is looking at the role of women and gangs. There's new research going on and I hope it informs law enforcement about their roles," he said.

Research has been funded by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, including a study by Angela Wolf of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency looking at family and other factors that may help pull girls away from gangs and their crimes.

"I hope (the research) shows us what we need to do to keep women out of that lifestyle," McMillin said.

Martinez became a target of local police surveillance in 2005, while she and a Castroville woman, Carol Huerta, were followed as they visited Nuestra Familia gang generals in Alameda County Jail. One of their colleagues, a young Salinas woman named Crystal Morado, was murdered on Hecker Pass Road in what gang investigators believed was a gang-sanctioned killing. As other homicides followed, Martinez's cousin was eventually convicted of shooting her boyfriend in a hit ordered by her former lover, a gang leader.

Huerta is now facing federal drug conspiracy charges in a Sacramento federal court, and Martinez was among more than 100 people, nearly half of them from Monterey County, who were arrested during Garlic Press's five-county sweep targeting Norteño gang members and associates suspected of trafficking in firearms, drugs and stolen cars.

Agents at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives began the investigation in March 2010 in collaboration with Gilroy police. By the time it culminated in October 2011, more than 400 officers from about 40 agencies were involved, including Salinas police and the Monterey County Sheriff's Office.

Some defendants faced federal charges while other have been tried in local courts.

Last March, Miguel Gonzalez, 37, of Salinas, and Adrian Gamino, 31, of Morgan Hill, were the operation's first defendants to be sentenced on the federal side of the multi-agency case. Both men received 20-year sentences.

Julia Reynolds can be reached at 648-1187 or jreynolds@montereyherald.com.