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SANTA FE – With Election Day less than six weeks away, Republican Mark Ronchetti continues to hammer away at Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s record on crime.
In a recently launched TV ad, Ronchetti criticized a Lujan Grisham executive order from April 2020 that, over two-plus years, authorized more than 700 inmates to be released early from prison due to the COVID-19 pandemic, provided they met specific criteria that included being scheduled for release within the next 30 days.
A spokeswoman for the Democratic governor said the executive order was rescinded this week – just days after the attack ad began airing.
Specifically, Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said the order was one of several pandemic-related executive orders that was rescinded after a review. She said the decision was not related to Ronchetti’s criticism.
In his ad, Ronchetti said one target in a recent high-profile FBI drug raid in Albuquerque, Omar Manzanilla, had been among those released under the order and cited a confidential informant’s remarks to agents that those arrested were in New Mexico because of the state’s “weak” criminal penalties.
“No wonder criminals choose New Mexico,” a narrator says during the 30-second TV ad.
But Corrections Department records obtained by the Journal show Manzanilla was released from Roswell Correctional Center just two days before his scheduled release date in June 2020.
An agency spokeswoman said Manzanilla was one of 708 people released under the governor’s order. Of those 708 individuals, Corrections Department spokeswoman Carmelina Hart said nine of them violated conditions of release between their release and original projected release date. Court records show Manzanilla was not one of them.
However, an arrest warrant was issued for him on July 27, 2020, after he failed to contact his probation officer, according to court records. The officer wrote Manzanilla’s “current whereabouts at this time are unknown.”
Due to the sequence of events, Lujan Grisham campaign spokeswoman Delaney Corcoran said Ronchetti’s criticism was misguided at best, suggesting the governor’s executive order played no role in Manzanilla’s actions after being released from prison.
“This is yet another blatant lie from Mark Ronchetti’s desperate campaign,” Corcoran told the Journal. “The case in question involved a person that the Corrections Department recommended be released 48 hours earlier than scheduled. It has absolutely nothing to do with what happened years later.”
However, the Ronchetti campaign has stood by its criticisms and accused the incumbent governor of failing to keep New Mexicans safe.
A Ronchetti campaign spokesman said Thursday that Manzanilla was a “notorious gang member” who has been arrested more than 20 times and should not have been eligible for parole – or early release.
“He doesn’t exactly fit the model of a ‘good neighbor’ that the governor claimed was the basis for these early releases,” Ronchetti campaign spokesman Ryan Sabel said.
Ronchetti was also endorsed this week by two law enforcement unions, the New Mexico Fraternal Order of Police and the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association.
“It’s not fun to be a police officer any more,” Shaun Willoughby, president of the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association, said during a meeting with Ronchetti that was broadcast online.
He also said the stakes of this year’s election cycle are big, adding, “The fight for the soul of New Mexico is upon us.”
Political fallout of early release impacts race for governor
The governor’s executive order allowing certain inmates to be released early from prison was issued shortly before the New Mexico Law Office of the Public Defender and other groups filed a petition with the state Supreme Court seeking a broad release of prisoners at heightened risk from COVID-19.
While that court case was ultimately unsuccessful, the political fallout from the order has emerged as an issue during this year’s race for governor.
Ronchetti, who has also accused Lujan Grisham of appointing “soft on crime” judges and supporting legislation making it more difficult for law enforcement officers to do their jobs, has highlighted the case of Manzanilla in his criticism of the governor’s order.
After being released early in June 2020 under Lujan Grisham’s executive order and failing to comply with the terms of his probation, Manzanilla was arrested in Valencia County on Sept. 21, 2020, on several felony charges after allegedly stealing a car, threatening a man with a gun and leading police on a chase, according to court records.
He was released on $10,000 bond in November 2020 but taken into the custody of the Corrections Department.
Manzanilla was eventually released to probation again on July 15, 2021, and a warrant was issued within a week when he once again failed to contact his probation officer, according to court records. A second arrest warrant was issued for Manzanilla on Sept. 24, 2021, after he failed to show up for court in the Valencia County case.
Manzanilla was a wanted man when federal search warrants unsealed in early September named him as one of numerous targets in a gang- and drug-related investigation. The associated search of a home in the South Valley netted $2 million in bulk cash, 1 million fentanyl pills – the biggest seizure in FBI history – along with 142 pounds of meth and dozens of guns.
Five people were arrested, but Manzanilla was not one of them, according to federal court records, and he has not been charged with any crimes federally.
Manzanilla’s attorney did not immediately respond to Journal questions.
Ronchetti says he would stiffen criminal penalties
Ronchetti’s ad also points out New Mexico’s prison population has declined by 20% since Lujan Grisham took office in 2019, even as violent crime rates have increased during that same time period.
Those statements are true, though the state’s increase in violent crime actually began in 2014 – during the administration of Republican ex-Gov. Susana Martinez.
In addition, property crime rates in Albuquerque and other parts of the state have decreased in recent years, according to Legislative Finance Committee data.
Lujan Grisham, for her part, has claimed she has improved public safety during her first term as governor by signing legislation to increase some criminal penalties and boost funding for police officers, among other actions.
But her Republican opponent in the Nov. 8 general election has questioned the sincerity of Lujan Grisham’s push to change New Mexico’s pretrial detention system that was overhauled after approval of a 2016 bail reform constitutional amendment.
The Democratic-controlled Legislature this year rejected a proposal backed by Lujan Grisham that would have made it easier to keep defendants accused of certain violent crimes in jail pending trial.
If elected, Ronchetti has said he would push for legislation that would stiffen criminal penalties. He also vowed this week to expand New Mexico’s rarely used “three strikes” law for violent criminal offenders.
While some of his proposals could encounter opposition from lawmakers, Ronchetti has said he would launch a statewide publicity campaign to build legislative support for his initiatives.
“The reality of the situation is our crime problem is not bad luck, it’s bad policy,” Ronchetti said.