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.