For six months, an FBI-New Mexico State Police task force infiltrated a high-crime area of Southeast Albuquerque to try to reclaim the troubled neighborhood from habitual violent offenders, including armed robbers and drug dealers who had set up shop in apartments, extended-stay motels and even outside a drug rehabilitation facility.
According to federal search warrant affidavits made public this week, the investigation included more than 60 undercover drug buys and a 5 a.m. search that found a 12-year-old girl alone in an alleged drug dealer’s house.
Last Friday, dozens of law enforcement agents descended on the streets of Albuquerque’s International District for a predawn takedown. The raids of more than a dozen alleged “neighborhood drug houses” harkened back to the area’s old moniker, the War Zone.
Federal and state officials as of Wednesday night hadn’t responded to Journal requests for details about the crackdown.
But state and federal records show that at least 20 people were arrested and that firearms, including a short-barrel AR-15 assault rifle, were confiscated, along with heroin and other drugs.
The task force focused primarily on habitual violent offenders involved in serial armed robberies, and suppliers of heroin, fentanyl and methamphetamine within the high-crime zone.
The majority of the suspects identified have significant rap sheets and “are no strangers to the criminal justice system,” said a 55-page federal search warrant affidavit.
The locations searched were “being used as neighborhood methamphetamine, heroin and crack-cocaine distribution houses,” the affidavit said.
While the suspects identified in the investigation aren’t alleged to have been “plotting, conspiring or coordinating drug trafficking activities with one another,” some appeared to have been “supportive of one another, with mutual acquaintances, while others appear to be competitors.”
“Yet all share a nefarious business model and geographic similarity,” the affidavit said.
A city task force in 2017 found that the International District, long known for its crime epidemic, has had the highest concentration of violent crime in recent years.
Last September, according to the search warrant records, the FBI, the State Police narcotics unit and APD’s armed robbery unit launched the joint investigation under a U.S. Department of Justice initiative called Project Safe Neighborhoods.
The initiative is aimed at reducing violent crime by focusing on locations around the country that have the most significant problems with violence. Task forces of federal, state and local law enforcement officers identify the crimes and the perpetrators, ultimately prosecuting the offenders.
In New Mexico, the International District was designated as a Project Safe Neighborhoods zone, according to the search warrant records.
Much of the joint investigation was based on calls from concerned citizens, and business and property owners in the area, as well as conversations with local law enforcement officers.
The raid was intended to “collect evidence of violations of drug and firearms laws,” as well as helping “the investigative agencies in the disruption and dismantlement of several drug supply houses within southeast Albuquerque.”
The affidavit said the task force was prepared to make arrests in residences that had been fortified with metal security doors, metal bars over windows, surveillance cameras and fencing or walls. The expected fortifications also included “guard dogs and human look-outs aimed at dissuading or delaying would be ‘drug rip-off crews’ or law enforcement officers serving search warrants,” the affidavit stated.
One suspect was observed armed with a .45-caliber pistol and selling heroin and methamphetamine from the parking lot of a drug rehabilitation facility, and his Albuquerque home. The clinic, 5 Points Clinic, is one of several locations under the Recovery Services of New Mexico.
Agents conducted a search in December on the man’s house and discovered a 12-year-old girl home alone at 5:27 a.m. Her mother later told agents she had left the house at 3:30 a.m. “to go to the casino.”
The girl was escorted into an FBI vehicle to keep warm, and authorities recovered a loaded .22-caliber rifle, a half-pound of methamphetamine and a stolen SUV. The state Children, Youth and Families Department was alerted.
The girl’s father, whose activities were of interest to the task force, moved out of the residence, but by late February he returned home and was back selling heroin and methamphetamine, the affidavit said.