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Welcome to Madrid

How many pot plants does it take to justify a war on drugs?

February 23, 2011, 12:00 am

Marianna Hatten owns High Feather Ranch, a spacious bed and breakfast outside Madrid, NM.
Credits: Alexa Schirtzinger

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 (audio here), 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.

Lawrence, a Madrid resident who asked that his last name not be used, took this photo on Sept. 20, 2010.
Credits: Photo courtesy of Lawrence

“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.
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