Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Before Operation Legend came to town, igniting protests and concerns from activists and politicians, Operation Relentless Pursuit had its own short stint here.
Operation Relentless Pursuit, planned as an injection of grant funding and a permanent enhancement to federal law enforcement agencies in Albuquerque, was aborted months after it began due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In its place is Operation Legend, announced last month, which officials say involves more than 25 federal officers coming to town to combat violent crime.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office said Operation Relentless Pursuit started in early 2020 and resulted in 41 prosecutions. So far the U.S. Attorney’s Office has announced one arrest in Operation Legend.
“Like Operation Legend, the goal of Operation Relentless Pursuit was to reduce violent crime, and gun violence in particular,” spokesman Scott Howell wrote in an email. “Although there are no hard and fast criteria for which federal prosecutions were designated as Operation Relentless Pursuit, we generally selected those cases that we believed would contribute to a reduction in violent crime in Albuquerque.”
Several defense attorneys had not known their clients were being prosecuted under Operation Relentless Pursuit until they were contacted by a Journal reporter.
Attorney Joel Meyers said in general he thinks there is a disturbing trend of “federalizing” local crimes – meaning those who are charged in federal court face much longer sentences than those charged with the same crime in state court. Meyers, a former federal and state prosecutor, said some of the cases are “low-hanging fruit” rather than serious offenses.
“We should think about the notion of ‘what is a federal case?'” Meyers said. “Is a federal case John Doe with a firearm who has a felony conviction? What rises to the federal level of that incident? I think it should be the actions of the person, not necessarily some artificial notion of how to do enforcement around things.”
He said he thinks bringing in outside law enforcement for the operation can erode the community’s trust in its police department.
“It destroys this notion of community policing and the real positive effects of community policing,” Meyers said.
District Attorney Raúl Torrez, on the other hand, has previously advocated for more local cases to be tried federally and wrote in a letter to the U.S. Attorney last month that he was pleased to hear that the agents involved in Operation Legend will be engaging in “classic crime fighting” rather than the tactics used to quell protests in Portland.
However, he asked the U.S. Attorney’s Office to carefully monitor the operation to ensure it isn’t targeting certain populations unjustly.
“As you well know, when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) conducted its ‘worst-of-the-worst’ campaign several years ago, it allowed agents with little or no understanding of this city to engage in enforcement activities that disproportionately impacted the African American community,” Torrez wrote. “You and I have spent the last several years trying to repair the damage done by that ill-conceived operation, and I trust that you will use your oversight authority to make sure that the agents assigned to Operation Legend do not repeat the mistakes of the past.”
$9.7M not received
In December, when Attorney General William Barr announced Operation Relentless Pursuit was coming to Albuquerque, he cited violent crime rates that were 3.7 times the national average. Most categories of violent crime spiked a couple of years ago in Albuquerque and have since remained at about the same level, according to Albuquerque Police Department data. There was a record number of homicides – 80 – in 2019, but so far there have been fewer this year compared to last.
The Relentless Pursuit initiative planned to send federal officers to six troubled cities, and to offer them grant funding in order to hire more officers to replace veteran officers who were drafted into federal task forces.
APD already has 19 officers from specialty units like Robbery, Narcotics and the Gun Violence Reduction Unit serving on federal task forces, according to a department spokesman, and has worked with federal agencies on 66 criminal cases so far this year. It’s unclear how many of those cases, if any, are associated with Operation Relentless Pursuit.
A Mayor’s Office spokeswoman said the U.S. Attorney’s Office sent an email in early January notifying the city that grant funding was available. She said in late February APD received a draft of a Memorandum of Understanding and negotiated the terms with the Department of Justice before Albuquerque Police Chief Michael Geier and John Anderson, the U.S. Attorney for New Mexico, signed it in late May.
The MOU states that one of the main goals of Operation Relentless Pursuit was to increase the ability to prosecute cases in federal court.
According to the MOU, depending on the funding APD received under the grant it would assign “the required number of APD personnel as task force officers to either the Federal Bureau of Investigation Albuquerque Violent Crime Task Force or the FBI APD Safe Streets Task Force.”
APD was awarded $9.7 million in grant funding to pay for the salaries and expenses for 40 police officers, but it has not yet received it.
Howell, the spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said in order to accept the grant the city needs to abide by all of its conditions, including a provision in the law that makes it illegal to prohibit employees from sharing information about an individual’s immigration status with federal law enforcement. The city is operating under an “immigrant-friendly” resolution and the city attorney has told the Department of Justice it has a different interpretation of that condition following a recent court ruling out of California.
The Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office was awarded $1.4 million in grant funding and Anderson said it has received enough to hire five deputies.
Bernalillo County also has an “immigrant friendly” resolution, but the Sheriff’s Office has said it was able to certify that it will comply with the conditions.
COVID ends effort
In an interview last month, Anderson said Operation Relentless Pursuit was terminated early because of the COVID-19 pandemic and concerns about agents traveling. He said Operation Legend, which replaces it, will be a short-term infusion of federal agents.
Although federal agents were scheduled to arrive in Albuquerque in early summer for Operation Relentless Pursuit, that did not end up happening.
“I think there was a sense that COVID would pass much more quickly than we all recognize now is the reality of the situation,” Anderson said. “I think at some point everyone realized this was not going to pass, that we were going to have to weather the COVID storm and resume our law enforcement operations despite it.”
At a news conference in the White House on July 22, AG Barr said 35 federal officers from the FBI will be coming to Albuquerque for Operation Legend. The U.S. Attorney’s Office has since revised that figure to “more than 25.” A spokesman would not say how many are already here.
“At this time we will refrain from identifying the number of agents who have arrived in Albuquerque,” Howell wrote.
While Mayor Tim Keller, Chief Geier and other local and state politicians expressed concerns about Operation Legend leading up to its announcement, Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales traveled to the White House to attend the news conference. The widower of Jacqueline Vigil – who was shot and killed in the driveway of her West Side Albuquerque home last year – also attended the news conference and pleaded for help in solving that crime.
Drug, gun crimes
Although the U.S. Attorney’s Office for New Mexico said there were 41 prosecutions under Operation Relentless Pursuit, it only provided the names of 11 defendants. They are all charged with gun or drug crimes.
A handful of the men charged have previously been in the news, including Pedro Escalante who was shot and injured by an APD officer last year after fleeing from a stolen car. The officer said Escalante had pointed a gun at him, although lapel camera footage doesn’t show the gun or the shooting. Escalante had pleaded guilty to aggravated assault on a peace officer and receiving or transferring a stolen vehicle, both fourth-degree felonies, and received a three-year suspended sentence and probation.
According to a criminal complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for New Mexico, in February an officer with the Rio Rancho Police Department assigned to a federal task force learned Escalante had violated probation. He was told Escalante was near the Home Depot on Coors and was eventually able to arrest him. Escalante was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm and a drug user in possession of a firearm after he was found with a revolver and admitted to using heroin and methamphetamine, according to the complaint.
Another defendant, Michael Lollis, was charged with possession with intent to distribute fentanyl, an extremely potent synthetic opioid, and methamphetamine, possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime and being a felon in possession of a firearm. According to a criminal complaint filed in federal court, on June 29, a confidential source told a special agent that Lollis had a large amount of fentanyl pills. Agents surveilled his home and then APD officers pulled him over, finding “508 gross grams of pills packaged in two approximately 1,000-pill bulk packages consistent with the appearance of counterfeit oxycodone pills containing fentanyl and a Smith and Wesson .38 caliber revolver,” according to the complaint.
Attorneys for Lollis and Escalante did not respond to requests for comment on the cases.
As for Meyers’ client, Juan Antonio Martinez, he is also charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. According to the criminal complaint, he is “a validated member of the Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico prison gang” and a suspect in a series of drive-by shootings in Albuquerque in early January. He also has felony convictions for larceny, breaking and entering and forgery in 1993 and 1994, according to the complaint.
So far, Martinez doesn’t appear to be facing charges related to the shootings, but agents surveilled his home on Jan. 16, followed him to a Belen Walmart and arrested him after finding a pistol under the hood of his car and two grams of cocaine in his pocket, according to a complaint.
Meyers said he could not talk about the specifics of the case, but he said it doesn’t really matter that the prosecution is under Operation Relentless Pursuit.
“At the end of the day, for both Juan and me, it doesn’t make much of a difference when you’re staring at federal charges,” Meyers said.