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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

Madrid area resident Sylvia Stanley says Region III officers intimidated her in order to gain consent to search her home.
Credits: Alexa Schirtzinger

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.

Madrid residents say the helicopter flyovers frighten livestock and pets—as well as their owners. Note the helicopter in the backround of this shot of a horse burying its head in a tree.
Credits: Photo Courtesy of Marianna Hatten

“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.
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