U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez and Thomas Atteberry, the special agent in charge of the Phoenix office of the lead agency, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, announced the results during a news conference Friday at the U.S. Attorney’s Office joined by heads of other law enforcement agencies.
They said the undercover operation targeted Albuquerque because of its statistically high rate of violent crime.
“What’s unique about Albuquerque is the level of violence here – it’s wide open,” said one agent in a later interview. A founder of the enhanced undercover operations team who has participated since the first one was launched in Phoenix in 2009, he said he recalled seeing a man – a person he learned had multiple prior convictions – openly riding a bicycle down an Albuquerque street carrying a shotgun.
Many of the suspects were already on local law enforcement’s radar, and some had been charged in state District Court, and had been released. But there were some local law enforcement were not aware of, an agent said.
Arrests that started July 7 and ended this week yielded charges against 104 individuals. A handful have been released and 10 are fugitives – almost all charged with firearms and drug trafficking offenses. Two homicides were also solved during the investigation, Martinez said. Four individuals have been indicted in state court in connection with those deaths.
“The premise is some individuals commit a disproportionate amount of crime,” he said. “We can take control … This is law enforcement coming together as one to address the problem.”
The operation began in April with a small team gathering information and conducting analysis to target career offenders using proven strategies from similar surges in other crime-ridden cities, including Cleveland; New Haven, Conn.; Oakland, Calif.; St. Louis; Stockton, Calif.; and Phoenix.
This operation, said Will Glaspy of the Drug Enforcement Administration, “exceeded all expectations.”
Officers took 127 firearms, including a number of assault-type weapons. They also purchased and seized more than 17 pounds of methamphetamine, more than 2.5 pounds of heroin, 14 ounces of crack cocaine, over a pound of cocaine and some Ecstasy, and seized four vehicles.
The meth was of a purity that suggested it was being sold close to where it was being created, an ATF agent said later.
Atteberry said the effort would not have been possible without aid from other state and local agencies, whose representatives stood in a scrum at the front of the room at the news conference. The Albuquerque Police Department, for instance, provided air support and more. A New Mexico State Police tactical unit provided personnel and equipment, especially as the arrests were underway.
ATF brought in “the best of the best to deal with the worst of the worst,” Atteberry said. He said the results were “unprecedented.”
The operation relied on undercover agents and confidential informants, called “sources of information.” Informants went to houses and apartments in Albuquerque’s Southeast and West Side, meeting and getting to know past offenders, and sometimes nonfelons, who could provide guns – often stolen – and narcotics, according to the ATF.
That intelligence was shared with undercover agents who analyzed it and ultimately went in with various secret recording devices to establish probable cause for the arrests.
“We ran into nonfelons going out and buying guns and selling (them) to put on the street,” one agent told the Journal.
A technical aide accompanied the elite team of some 10 undercover agents, men and women, selected from around the country for what they knew ahead of time would be three or four months of intense work.
“You need human intelligence, though sometimes it’s flawed,” said the undercover agent. An hour of undercover work typically spells two more hours of paperwork that night.
Potential penalties run the gamut and could range from five years on a crack distribution conviction or a potential life sentence for anyone deemed by the court to be an armed career criminal. A separate statute adds consecutive time to the underlying sentence if a firearm is used in a drug-trafficking crime.