Serenity is the norm at High Feather Ranch, the spacious adobe inn perched on 65 acres of pristine high desert outside Madrid, NM. Most afternoons, the juniper-dotted hills are bathed in golden sunlight, silent but for the lazy cawing of an occasional blackbird.
This tranquility enticed Marianna Hatten to quit her job and build her dream ranch here 10 years ago. It’s where Brian Lee, one of her neighbors, has enough space to grow countless varieties of boutique organic squashes and heirloom tomatoes and where biologists, artists and outdoorsy types come to escape or retire.
Hatten likes the norm here. It’s the days when helicopters circle incessantly and men in bulletproof vests park their ATVs and saunter across her private land, assault rifles in hand, that infuriate her.
The helicopter flyovers Hatten describes have occurred regularly over the past five years, usually between mid-August and late September, according to both Madrid residents and law enforcement officials. They’re part of the annual marijuana-eradication efforts conducted by the Region III Drug Enforcement Task Force, a multi-agency counterdrug unit funded by the federal government.
The task force includes law enforcement officers from the New Mexico Department of Public Safety, the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office, the Santa Fe Police Department and, according to Region officials, occasionally other law officers from Rio Arriba, Los Alamos and Taos counties—all of which fall under Region III’s jurisdiction.
In all, New Mexico has seven such task forces, each dedicated to fighting drug-related crime in its respective region. With approximately $416,000 in funding for the 2010 fiscal year, Region III falls squarely in the middle of expenditures by New Mexico’s regional drug task forces.
Law enforcement officials say the Region III Task Force plays a crucial role in reducing drug-related crime in northern New Mexico. But the Madrid and Cerrillos residents on the receiving end say the Region’s missions are haphazard at best—and frighteningly hostile at worst.
Further, drug policy critics argue that the results of such drug enforcement task forces—often measured in arrests—merely serve to trap more people, for low-level drug offenses, in the costly criminal justice system.
But Region III’s activities are also shrouded in secrecy, making accountability next to impossible.
SFR spent the better part of two months requesting records of the task force’s activities—only to find that Region III either fails to keep complete documentation of its activities, or is simply not forthcoming.
Such secrecy is certainly the case for the operation that occurred last September—an unsettling day for those residents encountering armed masked men in fatigues in the middle of their normally peaceful town.
Hatten, an energetic, white-haired woman, first noticed the helicopters around 7:30 am on Sept. 20.
“There were helicopters—black, small, probably a pilot and a shotgun rider—and they hovered and they throbbed and they buzzed,” Hatten says. “They’d go up towards the Ortiz [Mountains] and come back towards the Cerrillos Hills. They’d go east; they’d go west. They were just everywhere—one would cross behind the trees, and then another one would appear.”
Hatten says she counted at least three, but that another neighbor reported five helicopters in the air at once. Her first thought, Hatten says, was that they were pursuing an escapee from the state penitentiary, approximately 15 miles away.
Alarmed, she called the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office.
“The dispatcher was polite,” Hatten says. “She said, ‘Let me check.’ Then she came back and said, ‘It’s just routine practice.’”
Routine, maybe—but practice it wasn’t. Around 11:30 am, Hatten says, a neighbor alerted her to armed men on all-terrain vehicles ascending Gold Mine Road, the long, narrow road that connects Hatten’s private land to Highway 14, a little more than two miles away. Hatten decided to investigate.
Just outside the ranch’s gate, she found several unmarked vehicles parked on her private land—SUVs with civilian license plates, she says, and ATVs painted in camouflage. Moments later, she says, approximately 20 armed men drove up.
“I went over, and I said, ‘Who are you? Are these your vehicles? Get them off my land!’” Hatten recalls. “I was not nice.”
One officer, she says, identified himself as Agent Mark Esparsen of the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office.
“He said, ‘How do we know this is private property?’” Hatten says. “I said, ‘Get a map! Google Earth! This is all private; you know there’s no state, BLM, county—this is all private land!’”
After trying to convince the officers to have the vehicles removed, Hatten says she returned home.
“I was afraid,” she says. “Guns, guns and 20 guys—and here I am, a little old lady in green Crocs and tennis clothes!”
Brian Lee, a martial arts teacher and avid vegetable farmer who lives nearby, heard the helicopters too. When he went outside with his family to get a better look, his youngest son spotted a man standing atop a structure on the far end of their property—behind a closed gate and obvious “No Trespassing” signs.
When he investigated further, Lee found ATV tracks around his outbuildings and footprints inside his greenhouse—evidence that Region III officers had entered his private property without a search warrant, which is illegal.
By the time five law enforcement officials came to his door, Lee’s guard was up.
“They broke into the [greenhouse], they looked at the whole place—and then they came to my house to say, ‘OK, show us what you have,’” Lee tells SFR. “They’ve already disregarded my rights; that’s evident to me. So now I have guys in my front yard with machine guns and bulletproof vests who are asking me to cooperate, who have already proven they don’t have any respect for my constitutional rights—so how are they not just criminals in my yard with machine guns?”
Sylvia Stanley, a soft-spoken 65-year-old with a mass of graying strawberry-blond hair, was planning to leave for Santa Fe that same morning—but the helicopters gave her pause.
Stanley tells SFR that, at the time, she was growing five small marijuana plants for medicinal use for an elderly, handicapped man she lives with. (She did not, however, have a medical cannabis program membership; she now says she’s planning to apply for one.) She had left a few fresh branches in a small Styrofoam cooler in her car, Stanley says. After tidying up the backyard, watering her vegetable garden and letting out her dogs, Stanley left—but she stopped briefly at a neighbor’s house to discuss the flyovers.
“Two minutes later, here comes this black SUV tearing down his driveway,” Stanley recalls. “They come over to me, and they said—and I was so shaken up—they said, ‘You’ve been spotted with harmful drugs in your vehicle, and you’re bringing them here to your neighbor to hide them at his house!’”
Stanley says she had no intention of hiding anything with her neighbor, and she told the two officers as much. When he asked to search her vehicle, she asked for a search warrant—but Stanley says the officer said he didn’t need one.
“They were dressed in black; they had bulletproof vests; they had weapons on them,” she says. “They were very ominous-looking people. They kind of intimidated me and gave me the fear [that], if I didn’t cooperate with them, I was going to jail.”
Ultimately, Stanley showed them the cuttings in her car and took them back to her house to show them where she had a few plants growing.
“They kept telling me that, if I cooperated with them, they would go easy on me and there would not be a problem,” Stanley says. “They kept reminding me that I had to cooperate with them.”Stanley’s experience mirrors that of John Smith, a Madrid
resident who asked that his real name not be used because of potential future litigation.
Though many area residents took photographs during the 2010 eradication mission, Smith did something different: During a similar mission in 2006, he taped his conversation with an officer who identified himself as a member of the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office.
In the conversation
, which lasts approximately 17 minutes (
), the officer asks Smith to sign a form consenting to allow law enforcement to search his property.
“We already saw it from the air, so that was probable cause,” the officer tells Smith, referring to an alleged marijuana grow. “It’s either [the consent form] or get a warrant; you know what I’m saying? And for eight plants, we didn’t want to go through that.”
But when the officer reads him the form, which says Smith is granting consent of his own accord, Smith balks.
“I didn’t necessarily choose,” he says in the recording. “There’s people with automatic weapons standing there, and it’s like—I got kids!”
David O’Niell, an Albuquerque-based private investigator who flew marijuana eradication missions in his six years as a National Guard pilot and worked as a US Customs and Border Protection pilot for another 13 years, says the stories from Madrid residents raise concerns.
“To be a valid consent, it has to be given freely,” O’Niell says. “I think most people would argue that armed policemen that landed in a helicopter at your door—that’s inherently coercive.”
Region III Operations Commander Lt. Juan Martinez, however, disputes residents’ accounts of the eradication missions.
“We do what we call air observation with the helicopters provided by National Guard, spot the marijuana grows, and then ground crews will be dispatched out there to talk with the owners,” Martinez tells SFR. “Either they’ll give us consent to pull their plants, or we’ll secure the area and get a search warrant.”
Martinez also says officers only inquire at properties where they actually believe there to be marijuana, either from aerial observation or other intelligence—and that they don’t go on private land without the owner’s consent or, if they have probable cause to believe there are drugs, a search warrant.
“I can assure you and the public that we don’t go on anybody’s property, barraging on there with no cause to be there,” Martinez says. “We do it legitimately and as discreetly and as professional as we can. It’s not a group of individuals out there raising havoc, as it’s probably been portrayed to you.”
Havoc or not, the amount of time and money devoted to scouring the Madrid area for marijuana grows seems, to local residents and drug policy advocates, sorely misplaced.
In Santa Fe County, as in most of New Mexico, marijuana is cultivated and is highly available, according to the Department of Justice’s 2010 National Drug Threat Survey. But in most of the state (with the exception of Luna and Hidalgo counties, which share a border with Mexico), the DOJ neither considers marijuana the “greatest drug threat” nor a source of violent crime.
Marijuana seizures across New Mexico have declined by approximately 18 percent since 2007, according to the DOJ survey, largely due to violence in northern Mexico, which has stunted the flow of narcotics through major border crossings such as Ciudad Juárez. But in Santa Fe County—despite a hefty chunk of stimulus funding for the Region III Task Force—they dropped by a whopping 90 percent.
That figure may illustrate a focus on what the DOJ considers Santa Fe County’s greatest drug threat: cocaine. According to Santa Fe Police Chief Aric Wheeler, most of the city’s major narcotics cases involve cocaine, not marijuana.
But Martinez says marijuana is still a priority—particularly in Madrid.
“There’s quite a few grows out there,” Martinez says. “Attribute it to the demographics or the culture out there, but marijuana is illegal.”
And as Santa Fe County Sheriff Robert Garcia sees it, law enforcement has an obligation to enforce that reality.
“We have to enforce it at every encounter,” Garcia says. “We just can’t pay attention to what’s coming in from Mexico or California. If it’s happening here, we have to address it.”
To achieve that, he says, Region III’s expertise is crucial.
“If we had to do it on our own, internally—what is done with other agencies in the operations of the Region—we wouldn’t be able to make a dent on the illegal drug problem,” Garcia tells SFR.
Since a federal indictment of its two main narcotics officers in 2007 and the subsequent dissolution of its Narcotics Division, the city, too, has relied on Region III for expertise, Wheeler says—and not just in narcotics cases.
“These catalytic converters that we’ve been having problems with,” Wheeler says, referring to a spate of property crimes in which catalytic converters were stolen out of parked cars. “What’s the whole purpose of stealing these catalytic converters? It’s the value that they bring when you go and sell them. What is that money being used for? I think it’s pretty clear to all of us that there’s a substance abuse problem,” Wheeler says.
But Region III provides more than investigative support, he says. It also comes with deep-pocketed federal grant programs.
“When we start talking about, ‘Why are you a member of the Region?’—there’s a lot of federal funding that’s provided to us to deal with narcotics trafficking that we wouldn’t be privy to if we weren’t a member of the Region,” Wheeler says.
But to Tracy Velázquez, the executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington, DC-based think tank dedicated to promoting prevention and treatment instead of incarceration, the benefits of that funding are dubious.
Forty percent of the stimulus funding for one of the two major grants that funds Region III, the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (Byrne-JAG, for short) went to law enforcement programs, Velázquez notes.
Comparatively little—approximately 16 percent—went to prevention and treatment programs.
“With crime being down, as it has been for a number of years, additional law enforcement resources means that law enforcement has to spend time on lower-level offendants and really [look] for ways to spend the money,” Velázquez says. “It’s a matter of, ‘We have all these resources; we have to find ways to use them.’”
The upshot, Velázquez says, is that more people end up in the criminal justice system. According to the New Mexico Army National Guard, drug-related arrests in missions on which the Guard cooperated have almost doubled statewide, from 442 in fiscal year 2006 to 880 in 2010.
“We know that, especially for people who are sent to prison for low-level drug offenses, they experience an increased chance of being involved in the justice system later,” Velázquez notes. In a sense, she says, increased law enforcement “creates more crime,” trapping low-level offenders in a criminal history that bars them from getting above-board jobs later.
Academic reports support her assertion.
A 2006 study by researchers at the Indiana University Center for Urban Policy and the Environment, for instance, found that Byrne-JAG programs dedicated to prevention and treatment generally did more to improve public safety than did gang and drug task forces such as Region III.
Velázquez says states have considerable flexibility in choosing how to allocate their Byrne-JAG grants—and though Wheeler says he believes Region III has done “an extremely effective job” of reducing narcotics crime, he’s open to the idea of using those resources for proven prevention and treatment programs.
“Prevention, education, rehabilitation makes our job easier in the long run,” Wheeler says. “I have no problem with us evaluating what that funding is going to go towards. But I want to make sure that I’m going to dedicate it into a fund that’s going to show me some results from the law enforcement perspective.”
He stops short of undermining his own livelihood.
“If you don’t have the Region out there identifying who the drug users, who the drug sellers are,” Wheeler says, “then you can never get to the next phase of rehabilitation.”
Region III’s recipients have plenty to say about the value of the task force, and they are supposed to keep records of their missions. These records are either sparse, incomplete or, in some cases, nonexistent.
On Dec. 1, SFR sent a request to the New Mexico Department of Public Safety, under the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act, for all “operations plans” and “incident logs” related to marijuana eradication missions.
DPS denied that request on the grounds that it does not keep incident logs of Region III eradication activities.
But a 2010 joint powers agreement between DPS and Region III requires DPS to keep “Offense/Incident Reports,” as well as overtime records for its officers who participate in eradication missions. When SFR pointed this requirement out in a subsequent request, DPS provided incident reports for three specific dates in 2009 and 2010.
Only one of those reports pertains to Sept. 20, 2010—the day described in minute detail by so many Madrid residents.
According to the one report DPS provides, an officer conducting aerial observation saw, between 1 and 6 pm, “a substantial amount of what appeared to be marijuana plants” growing outside the home of Laurene Nellessen, a Madrid resident. After conducting another hour of aerial surveillance, the report says, Nellessen signed a consent form allowing Region III officers to search her property. According to the report, they found 35 plants and “a small amount of dried product.”
According to online court records, Nellessen has not been charged with any crime. (Her only listed telephone number has been disconnected.)
SFR also filed public records requests with Region III and with the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office, which stated that it had already furnished all its Sept. 20 reports to the Region.
But search warrants filed in the month of September in the 1st Judicial District show that Region III officers visited at least one other residence—that of Kathryn Moore, Brian Lee’s neighbor.
According to the warrant, New Mexico State Police Officer Gabriel Trujillo “was advised by Region III narcotics agents via cell phone that a possible marijuana plantation is present near Gold Mine Road.” Agent Vincent Montez, according to the warrant, saw the plants “from the air, inside the National Guard helicopter.”
(According to New Mexico Army National Guard FOIA/Privacy Officer Sgt. Major Brenda Mallary, the Guard provides air support for Region III drug enforcement activities but is “never the lead agency in [drug] seizures.”)
Sometime after 12:21 pm, Region III agents arrived at the property and reported “a distinct smell of marijuana” and suspected marijuana plants “under see through fabric.”
After SFR again requested additional information, Region III Program Manager Ralph Lopez provided another report, in which 56 plants were seized from a vacant lot in Cerrillos, but said the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office would not provide the report pertaining to Moore’s case because “disposition is pending.”
(SFR also attempted to reach Moore but was unable to speak with her.)
Overtime reports show that at least four officers were in Madrid that day—and received between four and eight hours of overtime pay for eradication activities. In total, the reports SFR received from DPS and Region III account for approximately two hours and don’t account for any of the Madrid residents’ experiences documented by SFR.
Sarah Welsh, the executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, says the dearth of concrete information about the events of Sept. 20 is worrisome.
“Public oversight of police activity is really at the core of open government and the First Amendment, because you have people authorized by the government to go out and make a show of force,” Welsh says. “It’s intimidating; it’s frightening for people, so oversight of that activity—what they’re doing and why, making sure they do it constitutionally and fairly—is a really important function of government.”
But Lopez tells SFR that, while Region III supervises all eradication missions, it doesn’t keep a daily log of its activities.
“It’s not a requirement,” Lopez says. “And just because you speak to somebody doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to do a report—I mean, unless there’s really something at the other end of the report such as a seizure or an arrest or something that’s going to require an investigation.”
Whether a daily accounting of its actions is required or not, Welsh says, keeping records is still essential for oversight of publicly funded agencies such as Region III.
“That’s kind of disturbing on another level,” Welsh says. “If they’re avoiding making records because they want to avoid oversight, that’s a serious problem.”
The information vacuum isn’t limited to Region III. According to research on multi-jurisdictional task forces and the grant programs that fund them, “[D]ata gathering at the local level is limited and data analysis is scant,” researchers at the DOJ’s National Institute of Justice Journal reported in 2003.
At that time, the report found, fewer than a dozen studies had attempted to evaluate such programs.
This problem persists, according to a report released last fall by the US Government Accountability Office, which found continuing shortfalls in the amount, level and reliability of reporting on Byrne-JAG expenditures.
In New Mexico, the Region III Task Force has made
—in 2002, for an 18-month undercover operation that resulted in 52 arrests in the Española area and, more recently, for an unsuccessful eradication operation that yielded only tomatoes grown by schoolchildren.
But generally, its activities—and even public spending—fly below the radar.
Region III provided its own budget data at SFR’s request—but Lopez says each individual agency pays its officers’ salaries even if they work full-time with Region III. (Region III does, however, pay them overtime.)
This much is evident: DPS officers earned $780 in overtime pay on Sept. 20—close to half the total overtime budgeted for DPS by Region III. And O’Niell says OH-58 Kiowas—the type of helicopter captured in Madrid residents’ photos—cost approximately $1,500 per flight hour to operate.
Add in the guns, body armor and vehicles, and it’s a lot more taxpayer money than many area residents are willing to allocate for the 91 marijuana plants the DPS says it seized that day.
“I’ve been a taxpayer here for 40-something years,” Lawrence, a Madrid resident who asked that his last name not be used for fear of retribution, says. “And my money is going to support this? That drives me nuts!”
Sheila Lewis, the Drug Policy Alliance’s interim state director for New Mexico, says any marijuana eradication is inappropriate, given New Mexico’s more serious problems.
“The use of Region III Task Force money, which involves local law enforcement, to persecute people for marijuana growing, is misguided and costly,” Lewis says.
Twenty-two jurisdictions in 11 states have declared marijuana their lowest law enforcement priority, Lewis notes.
“Marijuana is so widely accepted now that making this any kind of a priority is just out of touch with the reality of what people want,” she says. “It’s a mistake to paint all drugs with the same brush. There are a lot of people using marijuana whose lives are not affected by it, who use it more healthily than they use alcohol and who are not involved in property crime to support their quote-unquote ‘marijuana habit.’”
Martinez says quantifying how much of the Region’s resources are spent on marijuana eradication versus other activities would be close to impossible.
“I could spend a year trying to locate that [number],” he says.
And Velázquez says one of the major benchmarks for a task force’s success, the number of arrests made, isn’t necessarily a true indicator of success.
“People arrested doesn’t really correlate with, did you have a serious crime problem and did this address it?” Velázquez says. In that sense, she says, “The actual reporting can encourage the sorts of low-level arrests that we know have a negative impact on public safety as well as on people in communities.”
That’s something Madrid can rally around.
“This is not meth; this is not heroin; are machine guns really necessary for this?” Lee wonders. “Who needs regulating on—the hippies in the hills with pot or the millionaire, billionaire drug guys?”
Or, perhaps, the regulators themselves?