ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — More than 40 years ago, Journal photographer Richard Pipes and I met up around 5 a.m. for breakfast at an all-night restaurant on East Central.
For two guys who got off work at 11 p.m., 5 in the morning was early.
We were preparing to accompany Albuquerque police, agents of the now defunct Governor’s Organized Crime Prevention Commission and the FBI on a predawn raid that was the culmination of Operation Fiesta One – an undercover second hand store operation where police and agents bought stolen property from thieves while cameras recorded the transactions.
Albuquerque then, like now, had a crime problem, and Operation Fiesta One was one of the tools law enforcement used to combat it.
The joint operation started out buying stolen eight-track tape players (Google it). It added Operation Gooseneck, dealing with stolen heavy equipment.
Fiesta One morphed into Fiesta Two, and by the time that concluded in 1979, undercover officers were buying stolen tractors, gold bars, high-end cars and guns. Lots of guns.
For years to come, bleary-eyed newspaper, radio and television reporters would cover similar local/federal roundups of thieves, drug dealers, gangbangers and others, depending on the type of crime problem local and federal law enforcement decided to target.
Those first early morning operations were carried out with few hitches – the biggest problem was the line at the jail booking desk in the basement under APD headquarters, where more than 100 defendants had to be processed.
Press conferences after each roundup were lengthy. It seemed like every law enforcement agency in a five-state radius that might have helped in any way was effusively thanked. And they all thanked one another.
Operation Fiesta One was unique because it marked the first time Albuquerque police and the FBI worked together in an extended undercover operation, financed by a federal agency – the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration.
Until that operation, the FBI did its thing and so did APD.
It was Sam Papich, executive director of the governor’s crime commission, who helped bring the partnership together.
After years as the FBI liaison to the CIA trying to smooth over infighting in Washington between the FBI and CIA on intelligence matters, Papich had become a guru for interagency cooperation.
When he retired from the FBI, he moved to New Mexico to run the Crime Prevention Commission, rolled out during the administration of then-Gov. Bruce King, and found fertile ground for his “we need to work together” mantra.
Since Operation Fiesta One, there have been so many joint operations among federal, state and local agencies over the decades that I have lost count and can’t remember the names of them all.
The FBI; Drug Enforce- ment Administration; Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; U.S. Marshals Service; and Homeland Security Investigations have all run and continue to run joint operations with local law enforcement throughout the state.
Some of these joint operations targeted specific drug trafficking operations – Los Padillas gang in Albuquerque’s South Valley; a family of drug runners in Deming; heroin dealers in Albuquerque who delivered drugs like pizza delivery drivers; human trafficking out of an East Central motel; a subset of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang and the Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico (SNM) prison gang.
Some programs were directed from the Department of Justice through the U.S. Attorney’s Office – like Operation HOPE and the Worst of the Worst during the administration of President Barack Obama. Others were initiated by local law enforcement agencies.
Some were more successful than others, and some have lasted years.
• The SNM task force led by the FBI has solved nine murders, several of them cold cases, with two more homicide cases pending, and sent dozens of Syndicato gang members to long stays in federal prison.
In that task force, FBI agents worked with the state Department of Corrections, New Mexico State Police and other local law enforcement agencies to arrest gang leaders and members in and outside of prison.
It started in 2015 during the Obama administration and is still going during President Donald Trump’s administration.
• The Child Exploitation Human Trafficking Task Force led by the FBI includes APD, the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office and Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office.
• The Safe Trails Task Force is led out of the FBI offices in Gallup and Farmington in partnership with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Navajo Nation police department.
• There is task force led by the FBI on missing Indigenous persons under Operation Lady Justice.
• The U.S. Attorney’s Office coordinates Project Guardian to prosecute felons in possession of firearms, Project Safe Childhood to protect children from internet crimes and Project Safe Neighborhoods.
In a recent interview, Jim Langenberg, FBI Special Agent in Charge of the Albuquerque office, echoed Papich’s words while discussing the now controversial Operation Legend.
He talked about the importance of agencies sharing intelligence, bringing different resources to bear on specific crime problems and how each agency, including the FBI, becomes a “cog in the wheel.”
Politics vs. reality
I have been wondering what Papich would think about the latest flap over Operation Legend, a “surge” program in which federal agents are moved into an area for a specific purpose – in this case to combat violent crime by getting armed criminals off the street.
I am fairly sure Papich would have rolled his one good eye and muttered “politics.”
The initial political rhetoric surrounding Operation Legend – from President Trump’s blaming Democratic mayors for crime problems to the knee-jerk reaction that federal agents were coming to suppress Black Lives Matter demonstrations – doesn’t match the reality.
U.S. Attorney for New Mexico John Anderson said one criticism of federal law enforcement programs is that the feds come in and then the feds leave, and the neighborhoods are just the same. “Our goal is to support a sustained reduction in violent crime,” Anderson said.
And the big initial splash from Operation Legend put some noses out of joint.
An FBI agent filed an affidavit linking Luis Talamantes, a Mexican national in the U.S. illegally, to the 2019 murder of Jacque Vigil, who was shot in the driveway of her West Side home as she was leaving early in the morning to go to the gym. The affidavit was filed in support of a motion to increase Talamantes’ federal prison sentence from five to 20 years for felony illegal entry into the United States. He had previously been deported three times.
The agent filing the affidavit is the coordinator of the FBI’s Violent Crime Task Force, which directs agents brought into Albuquerque as part of Operation Legend.
But the Violent Crimes Task Force has been operating for several years and consists of agents from the FBI, DEA, APD, the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office, New Mexico State Police, New Mexico Corrections Department, U.S. Probation Office and the Santa Fe Adult Correctional Facility.
The legal move to keep Talamantes locked up in federal custody is not much different than how the U.S. Attorney’s Office helped APD and the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office after the 2015 murder of APD officer Daniel Webster on East Central.
Davon Lymon, the suspect in Webster’s murder, initially was prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office under the Worst of the Worst program for being a felon in possession of a firearm and other charges.
Lymon was convicted in federal court and sentenced to 38 years in federal prison.
The federal case gave APD and state prosecutors time to prepare their murder case against Lymon as they faced new court-mandated
rules and timetables applicable only in Bernalillo County for turning evidence over to defense attorneys.
The strategy worked.
Lymon ultimately was convicted of Webster’s murder after a lengthy trial and sentenced to life in state prison after he serves his time in federal prison.
Whether it’s Worst of the Worst or Operation Legend, the short-term measure of success is measured in the number of arrests, guns seized and drugs confiscated.
But Langenberg said the long-term measure is more ambitious – “to show a reduction of violent crime in the Albuquerque area.”
“The bottom line,” he said, “is to make the community safer together.”
UpFront is a regular Journal news and opinion column. Journal investigative reporter Mike Gallagher has covered crime in New Mexico since 1976 as a television and newspaper reporter.