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Syndicato trial judge: No drones or shanks, please

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Court personnel and the U.S. Marshals Service were braced for homemade shanks, possible escapes and other dangers in the high-profile prosecution of dozens of members of the violent Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico prison gang.

They weren’t expecting defense attorneys or their investigators to fly an aerial drone outside the courthouse or snap cellphone photos of a murder defendant that were later posted on Facebook.

U.S. Marshals and U.S. District Judge James O. Browning generally kept the peace during the three years that shackled maximum-security inmates were brought in and out of U.S. District courtrooms for pretrial hearings and three-week-long jury trials in the SNM racketeering case.

On several occasions, court records show, SNM members or cooperators managed to carry shanks inside their body cavities to the witness stand in U.S. District Court.

One said he feared for his safety testifying in court.

In another episode, U.S. marshals forcibly removed a defendant, prompting other SNM members in the courtroom to stand up and yell.

Some security issues tended to be discussed behind the scenes.

But, at a Nov. 20, 2017, pretrial hearing, Judge Browning announced, “The guys are misbehaving.”

“Shanks-razor blades … don’t bring them to the courthouse,” Browning told those in the courtroom. “People are going to protect me. They’re going to protect you. … I’m worried about your clients. I don’t want anybody hurt. I know some of you are the – you know there are the huntees and the hunters, I know that. But we don’t need that. But, right now, I’m feeling that we’ve got some folks here that are in danger.”

Browning issued another warning during a pretrial hearing in the case, after a defense lawyer’s investigator deployed an unmanned aerial drone to film the outside of the federal courthouse in Las Cruces. The footage reportedly ended up in internet advertising.

There’s no outright U.S. Marshals prohibition of drones, said an agency spokeswoman.

But in the case of the SNM, known for killing informants, security was heightened at the Las Cruces courthouse, where two of the three SNM jury trials were held.

“Help me out,” Browning told those in the courtroom. “No drones or anything. Nobody do any drones or advertise or anything like that and create any issues for me. So defense lawyers have got to work with me, too. …”

“I’m not saying don’t do advertising,” the judge added, “but don’t do anything like drones.”

Defense attorney Chris Adams replied, “I don’t own a drone. We have one drone that I lost in the neighbor’s tree. I don’t know what you’re referring to.”

“You may not, but people in this room do,” Browning added. “So help me out. Work with me. Because when you do unusual stuff that makes the marshals nervous – that makes the job harder. No drone, no drones.”

In April, defense attorney Lisa Torraco was involved in taking two cellphone photos of her client, Andrew “Smiley” Gallegos, who was dressed in sport coats for court. The photos appeared to have been taken inside the Las Cruces federal courtroom where Gallegos was on trial for murder in aid of racketeering.

The photos ended up on a Facebook page of Gallegos’ girlfriend.

“My baby damn I love this man more than words can say,” said her post.

“Who is taking the picture, lol” asked someone.

“LOL looks like the attorney…” said another.

Torraco didn’t return requests for comment last week.

Lawyers may bring cellphones into the courtroom, but use of the phone camera while in the courtroom or court environs is generally prohibited, according to federal court rules.

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