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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

John Smith took this photograph of a National Guard helicopter parked near a Madrid home during a 2006 eradication mission.
Credits: Photo courtesy of John Smith

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 occasional headlines—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.’”

These photos, taken by Sylvia Stanley on Sept. 20, 2010, show armed Region III officers patrolling the Madrid area.
Credits: Photos courtesy of Sylvia Stanley

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?  SFR

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