A lawsuit filed in federal court this week alleges FBI agents used excessive force in a southern New Mexico drug raid two years ago when they tossed stun grenades into a trailer where three children slept.
The 9- and 10-year-old sons and 12-year-old daughter of Abel Romero Sr. – the target of a pre-dawn sweep that would net 22 suspected dealers of drugs and guns in Anthony, N.M. – were sleeping with their father in the living room of a single-wide trailer when federal agents allegedly blew open the front door with a stun grenade that sent shrapnel and broken glass flying.
Shrapnel struck the 10-year-old boy in the head and shoulder; the 12-year-old girl was made to walk out of the house barefoot and cut her feet on broken glass; all three children were emotionally traumatized, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Las Cruces.
The May 8, 2013, raid by FBI SWAT agents of several Anthony homes targeted suspected dealers of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana in southern Doña Ana County and was the result of a months-long investigation. Twenty-nine people would be charged in 13 criminal complaints.
Through wiretaps, the lawsuit alleges FBI agents had reason to know that children would likely be asleep in Romero’s trailer. The 29-year-old former convict had recently regained custody of his kids, and the children were sleeping that morning on couches and a mattress set out on the living room floor.
Also living in the trailer were Romero’s 47-year-old mother, Teresa, his 60-year-old stepfather Rosalio Ramirez, who bought and sold scrap metal; and his younger sister, Perla Ramirez, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges that FBI agents knew that Romero, although he had an extensive arrest record, had no record of using firearms or physically resisting police officers. The other residents of the house were not known to be violent, and agents had no reason to believe they would resist the FBI as it executed a search warrant, the lawsuit alleges.
A request for comment from the FBI had not be returned by mid-afternoon.
The 2013 federal criminal complaint against Romero states describes prior arrests for at least nine violations including resisting or evading a police officer, aggravated battery and possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.
The lawsuit claims that, in securing a search warrant, FBI agents omitted “that minor children were living in the trailer and were likely to be home when the warrant was executed” and also omitted that agents “intended to use explosive devices, namely the type of grenades used by the United States military for urban warfare operations” where the defendants “knew or should have known that minor children were highly likely to be sleeping.”
“The father here – it wasn’t like he was Pablo Escobar or something,” said Richard Rosenstock, a Santa Fe-based attorney for the three children, sister and grandmother, referring to the notorious Colombian druglord. “We’re not challenging the use of the SWAT team. It’s the use of explosive devices in a situation where they knew there were minor children there.”
Peter Simonson, executive director of the ACLU of New Mexico, said the case is the latest example of a “hyper-militarized approach to law enforcement.”
“Best practice is that they have a deployment plan that considers all contingencies, like who will be on premises during the raid and the likelihood of encountering violent resistance,” he said. “It’s what we expect from the Albuquerque Police Department as it reforms its SWAT operations, so you would at least expect as much from federal law enforcement.”
Simonson said SWAT raids are increasingly being used to execute street-level drug warrants rather than the more extreme situations for which they were originally intended, such as when hostages or live shooters are involved.
As a result, he said, “you get situations like this, where a SWAT team descends on a home and puts innocent victims in harm’s way because of their aggressive tactics.”
The lawsuit seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.
Earlier this year, U.S. Judge Robert Brack sentenced Abel Romero Sr. to 11 years in prison for his conviction on charges related to selling cocaine and guns.