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Editorial: City needs a cease-fire

Most residents didn’t really need accused drug dealer Manuel Humberto Bolivar, also known as “Little Sapo” in addition to other street monikers, to make the point Albuquerque is a violent city. They already know that.

After all, we are coming off a year with a record 82 homicides – including a UNM baseball player shot and killed in Nob Hill last spring leading to a State Police “surge,” and a 55-year-old woman fatally shot in her driveway at 5 a.m. in November as she was leaving home to go to the gym.

But it really says something about a place when a guy like Bolivar – who is facing possible life in prison on a variety of narcotics and weapons charges after being arrested with methamphetamine, fentanyl, marijuana, opioids, a machine gun, five handguns, two rifles, thousands of rounds of ammunition and a bulletproof vest – tells arresting officers Albuquerque is “very violent.”

You think?

In fact, U.S. Attorney General William Barr pointed out during a visit here in December that Albuquerque’s violent crime rate is 3.7 times the national average and our aggravated assault rate is four times the national average. By comparison, Denver’s violent crime rate is half ours.

Bolivar, 21, allegedly was part of a gang waging war on lower-level drug dealers and apparently had ties to an organization in Mexico.

Which brings us to the topic of sanctuary cities and the reason for Barr’s visit – crime-fighting funding via the feds’ “Operation Relentless.”

The federal Department of Justice says Albuquerque, as one of seven selected cities, could receive up to $10 million in grant money to help crack down on violent crime in conjunction with enhanced enforcement by federal agencies like the FBI and U.S. Marshals Service.

But U.S. Attorney John Anderson said in an op-ed published in Monday’s Albuquerque Journal the city isn’t eligible for the money because it refuses to comply with grant requirements that include allowing a federal agency to audit forms city employees fill out saying they are legally allowed to work in the United States. Further, grant recipients’ departments and employees can’t refuse to provide information to immigration authorities. Anderson said the city shouldn’t balk at accepting federal immigration enforcement and pointed out that local officials at one time routinely cooperated with federal immigration enforcement agencies so that felony offenders in local jails who had no legal immigration status “could be safely removed from our communities and not simply be released onto the streets.”

City Council President Pat Davis, a Democrat who co-sponsored a resolution in 2018 strengthening the “immigrant friendly” status of Albuquerque, takes a dim view of the federal position.

“To deliberately withhold money that they say will help Albuquerque because we don’t want to sign off on an unconnected, unrelated political agenda in the president’s election year is just blatantly political bullying,” he told reporter Elise Kaplan in the Feb. 13 Journal.

Deputy APD chief Harold Medina added, “it kind of feels like political extortion.”

There would seem to be a reasonable middle ground here. While an audit seems to be an overreach, there is absolutely no good reason the city (and county) should be trying to protect immigrants who are being held in felony cases and are in the country illegally.

And when it comes to grant money, barring successful litigation, the feds hold the cards. Just like they did back in 1974 when federal highway funding was tied to states adopting a 55 mph speed limit. Grants almost always come with strings attached.

It turns out that federal grant money to clear up the city’s shameful backlog of rape kits also is being held up for the same reason. Ditto for the federal grant Albuquerque received in 2018 to hire a program director for the Crime Gun Intelligence Center.

Anderson wrote that “the Justice Department shares the city’s vision of Albuquerque as a welcoming community for people of all racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds” and “enforcement of federal immigration laws is not motivated by racisim or xenophobia.”

That’s an argument that goes nowhere with critics of the current White House administration.

Perhaps more importantly, Anderson said in an interview that Operation Relentless has nothing to do with enforcing immigration law and “is about violent crime. … The department does not take into account immigration status. So if people who are committing violent crime are U.S. citizens, we’re going to go after them. If they’re undocumented aliens, we’re going to go after them.”

So the administration of Mayor Tim Keller and the Council have a political choice to make. Double down on sanctuary city – Medina says it is considering litigation if it does not get the funding – or, as Anderson argued in his op-ed, “as a matter of principle, Albuquerque should use every tool at its disposal to reduce violent crime and make our city safer.”

At the end of the day, to the too-many crime victims across the city, fighting rapes, assaults and murders, not filing a lawsuit, is the more compelling argument.

In the words of “Little Sapo,” Albuquerque is a “very violent” and “crazy place.” City leaders have the opportunity to find common ground with law enforcement partners and make it less so.

They need to call a cease-fire on the political posturing and get down to the business of making Albuquerque a safer city.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.