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Last summer, as the movement against racial injustice swept the country, officials in the Albuquerque Police Department asked the Drug Enforcement Administration for the assistance of special agents to do undercover operations and surveillance at protests, according to an investigative report from the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics in Washington published on Friday.
The government watchdog group published emails from Kyle Williamson, the DEA’s special agent in charge at the El Paso division, to officials with the Department of Justice. It also published similar requests from police departments in Chicago and Philadelphia.
The requests were sent before reports began coming out of Portland, Oregon, about federal agents policing and arresting activists. In July, as hints about federal agents coming to Albuquerque with Operation Legend circulated, the city sent out statements from Mayor Tim Keller, then-Police Chief Michael Geier and City Attorney Esteban Aguilar denouncing the practice, saying “it is an unconstitutional affront to representative democracy.”
In response to questions Friday, both the Mayor’s Office and Chief of Police Harold Medina vehemently denied knowing about the request for assistance from the DEA. Medina, who was the deputy chief over field services, was involved in overseeing the department’s response to the protests.
“Chief Medina is livid about this report of the department’s possible involvement with federal, undercover agents,” Gilbert Gallegos, an APD spokesman, wrote in a statement. “As Deputy Chief at the time of last year’s protests, Medina was not aware of any such involvement, nor were any of the other deputy chiefs. The Commander in charge of the Narcotics and Special Enforcement Sections is no longer with APD.”
Matt Ross, the mayor’s spokesman, said the city leadership was not aware of the request and would have opposed it “as out of line with our values.”
“Along with removing the former Chief of Police last summer, we also have new leadership over special investigations, the division that maintains the relationship with the DEA,” Ross wrote in a statement. “We will refer this information to our new Superintendent of Reform to find out how this went down under the former leadersâ€‹hip.”
Geier said Friday night that he had no idea the DEA had been asked to help at protests.
According to emails published on CREW’s website, the first request from an APD commander was made two days after protests began in earnest in Albuquerque. On the night of May 28, APD officers wearing riot gear and deploying what appeared to be tear gas clashed with protesters along East Central.
On May 30, someone using a cabq.gov email address (the name is redacted) sent an email to a DOJ official sharing the operational plan for the scheduled protests over the next few days.
“I know that your agents and APD Narcotics detectives work numerous ops together and work well with each other,” the email states. “I am requesting that your agents be approved to assist us with undercover operations as needed during these events.”
The request reached Williamson who passed it along to the Chief of Operations with the DEA, saying “our personnel will be working with APD narcotics detectives on the fringe of the crowd to identify any possible persons armed or with intent to inflame the situation. Our personnel will not engage but will advise APD uniform personnel who will engage the threat.”
On June 5, Williamson told the DEA’s principal deputy administrator that APD had renewed the request for the weekend. That request was approved.
“Seven SAs (special agents) from the Albuquerque DO (Division Office) will provide surveillance support,” Williamson wrote. “Large protests are expected on all downtown Albuquerque courthouses (including Fed) by Black Lives Matter, Free Them All, and Fight For Your Right.”
And on June 11, the special agent in charge of the Albuquerque office said there was a planned “community healing” event at Civic Plaza where the mayor and police chief will make speeches.
“At the same time that’s going on, we will also have a couple agents stationed in the uptown area, reference a secondary protest alleged to occur there,” the agent wrote.
Activists who spent the summer organizing protests and fighting for change said they were not surprised to read the investigative report.
La’Quonte Barry, an organizer with the Black New Mexico Movement, said the groups already knew they were being watched all the time.
“It confirms everything we knew before,” Barry said. “They treat us as if we’re the threat every time we go out to protest or exercise our rights.”
Nikki Archuleta, an organizer with Black Lives Matter, questioned why APD – which is supposed to keep the communities safe from violent threats – would need more surveillance on the activists.
“This is exactly why reform is not an option …,” Archuleta said. “These entities continuously show us that the surveillance, demonization, brutality, dehumanization, and violence perpetuated on our communities is more important than the ‘safety’ they preach … They aren’t really concerned with doing better but more so doing anything in their power to oppress people who are literally fighting for the right to simply exist.”
After hearing that the Mayor’s office and the current chief denied knowing about the request for surveillance, Archuleta said she still doesn’t see accountability from them.
“The system policing is built on is inherently violent and racist by default and building on that is impossible,” she said.