Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Just before midnight on his birthday, July 22, Leroy “Smurf” Lucero was gunned down in the driveway of his Las Vegas, N.M., home. The pistol he usually carried was still in the house when he walked out the door toward a black Honda that honked its horn.
Two assailants jumped from the car with handguns, firing at least twice. Fatally wounded, Lucero walked, then crawled, toward his house, saying, “They shot me, call the cops.” Neighbors came out of their homes, some with their own guns drawn, and the killers took off.
Lucero’s murder might have been just another in a string of mostly unsolved homicides and shootings that have plagued the northern New Mexico community since 2018 – attracting little outside attention.
Except that Lucero, 48, had been a government witness in the recently concluded federal racketeering and murder prosecution of more than 100 members and associates of the murderous Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico gang, which had a stranglehold on the New Mexico state prison system for decades.
Now, the FBI believes Lucero’s death was payback for his cooperation. And it portends a “grave threat” to others, including cooperators and law enforcement agents, who helped to “deeply disrupt the gang’s criminal activities in New Mexico,” according to a 183-page search warrant affidavit unsealed Thursday.
A chilling example: a cellphone video of a bloody Lucero, apparently dead and on the ground, ended up being sent to a witness. The message: “You could be next.”
The affidavit shows the extent to which Lucero’s death unleashed a coordinated investigative effort by the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, New Mexico State Police and the Las Vegas, N.M., Police Department.
On Thursday, Las Vegas was the epicenter of an early morning raid by an estimated 700 to 800 state, federal and local law enforcement officers who hit more than 20 locations in a swath from Wagon Mound in the north to Albuquerque in the south with search and arrest warrants to gather evidence against more than 30 targets and quash any plans for retaliation.
All but two of the targets are habitual offenders with extensive criminal histories and are alleged to have ties to SNM or SNM associates and local drug trafficking organizations.
While announcing the results of a simultaneous, related drug trafficking raid by DEA agents on Friday, federal authorities didn’t respond to Journal requests about the SNM crackdown. The affidavit shows the investigation, which took weeks of surveillance, was conducted in part by the FBI violent crimes task force, which includes State Police.
“I believe SNM is an ultra-violent organization with a violent reputation established through decades of murder and bedlam,” wrote FBI lead case agent Bryan Acee in the affidavit. Over the past 30 years, SNM members have murdered four police officers in New Mexico, his affidavit stated.
To hunt for Lucero’s killers, the FBI-led team took a deep dive to find a flourishing illegal drug world in northern New Mexico. Along the way, investigators also made new discoveries that have re-energized the government’s four-and-a half year campaign to dismantle the SNM and its associates both inside and outside prison walls.
So far, according to federal records:
• Lucero’s death put the spotlight on at least six different drug trafficking organizations, including one Las Vegas-based group whose purported leader, Robert Padilla, has long been on law enforcement radar but hasn’t been convicted of any serious crimes. With residences in Albuquerque and Las Vegas, Padilla was arrested by the DEA in Thursday’s raid. He is alleged to have assisted SNM in its criminal enterprise and is now a suspect in Lucero’s death.
• SNM’s influence has surged into the federal prison system, with new gang-operating rules and new leaders picking up the mantle from the prior SNM chiefs who are serving life sentences for committing violent crimes in aid of racketeering and other federal and state crimes.
One SNM member, who is serving a federal sentence for carjacking and firearms offenses, is now accused in the 2018 stabbing death of an inmate at a Virginia federal penitentiary as a way to earn a favorable reputation for SNM with the Mexican Mafia prison gang in the federal system.
• Some of the new evidence about the SNM’s reorganization is from informants who hadn’t helped law enforcement before, but were so concerned about the latest plans for retribution that they came forward to try to stop the impending violence.
“I believe the murder of Leroy Lucero was engineered by leaders within SNM and perpetuated by members and associates of the gang, who operate within the District of New Mexico and elsewhere,” Acee wrote in the affidavit. “I have probable cause to believe similar threats and a conspiracy to murder government witnesses exists. I am also aware certain members of the SNM have advocated for FBI agents and federal prosecutors to be harmed.”
Authorities hope that evidence from the searches “will yield evidence of such a plot, as well as an ongoing conspiracy by members and associates of the SNM to distribute controlled substances,” the affidavit stated.
SNM, which formed in the wake of the deadly prison riot at the Penitentiary of Santa Fe in 1980, had been “off and on federal and state law enforcement’s radar for many years,” the affidavit stated. However no prior investigations resulted in substantial prosecutions of SNM members.
That all changed in 2015 when an SNM plot to murder top state Corrections officials came to light, and the FBI foiled the murder conspiracy and launched a historic investigation of the prison gang, which has boasted up to 500 members. The resulting prosecution charged more than 40 SNM members with violent crimes in aid of racketeering, and 50 others with other federal crimes. Nine “cold case” homicides were solved and charged. More than 30 others, including SNM associates, faced state charges.
Although it is a prison gang, the affidavit states that 70% of those arrested in the four-and-a half year investigation “were out-of-custody (or on the street) at the time of their arrest.”
Some sentencings are still pending, and a sole defendant is in Mexican custody.
But the federal prosecution was successful in deeply disrupting the gang’s activities, because “so many of the SNM’s membership cooperated with the government,” the affidavit stated.
One of those was Lucero, a Las Vegas, N.M., native, who testified in pretrial hearings and as a government witness during one of the three racketeering trials in 2018. His testimony was a significant factor in the conviction of several SNM members, the affidavit stated.
Afterward, Lucero had been provided “sufficient” funding from the FBI to leave Las Vegas and relocate elsewhere for his safety, but either never moved or moved back to the area sometime later, the affidavit states.
During Lucero’s trial testimony, other witnesses were excluded from the courtroom, but numerous SNM defendants were in attendance and “were undoubtedly noting which members were cooperating with the government,” the affidavit stated. Lucero and his attorney “knew and communicated with the FBI the grave threat he faced …”
Back in Las Vegas, Lucero relapsed and began using heroin again. He was also selling heroin for Padilla, who was arrested in Albuquerque on Thursday.
The affidavit continues:
“Padilla feared Lucero due to his SNM ties, but needed Smurf and SNMers to handle business. Lucero and other SNM members made money off the sale of the drugs and provided protection to Padilla. But an informant related that Padilla began voicing concerns a few months ago that Lucero was an informant.”
Padilla researched Lucero’s most recent federal conviction as a felon in possession of a firearm and “believed Lucero had done too little time on what Padilla described as a case with a mandatory minimum sentence. He was suspicious Lucero had not been hit by the feds.”
Lucero’s widow Berlinda Lucero told the Journal their 12-year-old son saw his father gunned down that night and has been harassed at school ever since. She hopes the recent arrests will put an end to those threats.
“He (Leroy) wasn’t a bad person,” she said. “He would help anybody that needed help.” His family adopted the nickname “Smurf” for him after he dressed up as the blue cartoon character for Halloween as a child, she added.
Agents digging for information about Lucero’s slaying uncovered a drug trafficking scheme involving SNM members and associates run by Padilla to sell drugs, collect drug debts, intimidate rival drug dealers, assault and attempt to murder and murder persons who had run afoul of the organization.
Padilla’s trafficking organization is responsible for the distribution of bulk-quantities of controlled substances for many years, and built a “fearful reputation on the streets through intimidation and his boastful association to violent enterprises such as the SNM and the Bandidos Outlaw Motorcycle Gang,” the affidavit stated.
Despite 14 arrests since 2000, many for serious offenses, the affidavit said Padilla had “thus far avoided any felony convictions or significant jail time.”
A DEA affidavit stated that Padilla has a home in Albuquerque that functions as the headquarters for his drug-trafficking organization.
Lucero was one of at least six men murdered since 2018 in the Las Vegas area, with two other attempted murders occurring during that time, the affidavit states.
“Through the combined investigative efforts of the FBI, DEA, New Mexico State Police, the Las Vegas Police Department and the San Miguel County District Attorney’s Office, I believe a number of common threads exist between the SNM and the Padilla (drug trafficking organization),” the FBI affidavit said, “particularly with regard to a series of recent homicides and attempted murders in Las Vegas.”
One informant told investigators that two men who ran afoul of Padilla were lured to the forest outside of town and killed by his drug organization for reportedly stealing drugs. They are listed as missing persons.