For three days Yusef Casanova hunted for methamphetamine and a gun.
On June 4, 2016, a friend met a man in the heart of a hardscrabble area of Albuquerque pocked with pawn shops but dotted with well-loved front yards.
They stood outside the Allsup’s convenience store at Zuni Road and Kentucky Street SE. The stranger wanted meth, firearms; the friend brought Casanova in.
Like Casanova and his friend, the man was black.
The stranger agreed in a series of texts to pay a finder’s fee of some dope and maybe a little cash. Casanova wasn’t dealing, but he might know a guy.
For Casanova, the offer was too good to pass up. A crippling meth habit had him living in his car.
He didn’t know the man was an informant for the federal bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in a sting operation that targeted a largely minority swath of southeast Albuquerque.
On the third day Casanova found his way to “John,” a white guy he’d met in prison six years earlier.
The deal went down on June 7, 2016, a hot Thursday. Casanova awoke in his home on wheels that morning and texted the prospective buyer: The sun was draining the moisture out of his body.
The buyer, ATF Special Agent Russell Johnson, green lighted the transaction. Casanova drove to the 7-Eleven at Montgomery Boulevard and Carlisle Boulevard NE with a sawed-off .22 caliber rifle. He sold the broken down gun to Johnson for $100, but the undercover agent still wanted the meth, too.
Casanova repeatedly called “John,” who arrived about 20 minutes later. Johnson watched him disappear into Casanova’s car with a clear plastic bag in his hand. Casanova got out and sold an ounce of meth, 28 grams in a clear plastic bag — minus the gram or two finder’s fee — to Johnson for $600.
Everyone departed the 7-Eleven, Casanova with a little dope, “John” with the cash, Johnson with the bag of meth.
Seven weeks later, Casanova, a black man, was in handcuffs and facing more than 10 years in federal prison for meth distribution and a gun charge.
“John,” the white drug dealer, was not arrested.
The ATF, an agency dogged for years by allegations of racially biased policing and other problems, has no idea where he is.
“I’m being made out to be this big drug dealer,” Casanova, 44, said in an interview at the Torrance County Detention Center last month. “I feel like they employed me to commit a crime, knowing I was homeless and had a habit.”
At a news conference last August, Thomas Atteberry, Special Agent in Charge of the ATF’s Phoenix field division, said the four-month Albuquerque campaign that netted Casanova and 102 others marked “the most successful and impactful operation to date” of nine such stings nationwide by the bureau, taking “violent, repeat offenders” off the streets.
The “worst of the worst,” officials called them.
But a close examination by New Mexico In Depth reveals an operation that scooped up African Americans at numbers far exceeding their actual share of Albuquerque’s population while apparently netting few high-level operators in the local gun and drug trades.
Most of those arrested sold relatively small quantities of drugs to agents or, in some cases, simply brokered deals. A few people sold pounds of drugs and assault rifles to agents, while others were charged with carrying guns during drug transactions or illegally possessing firearms with felony records.
However, many of those swept up do not appear to have the types of violent criminal records ATF says it used as a prerequisite for targeting, although some, like Casanova, do. Some had no felony records at all. Also like Casanova, some were homeless and struggling with substance abuse problems.
To test ATF’s claims about the success of its operation, NMID analyzed hundreds of pages of federal and state court records, interviewed more than a dozen people — including defense lawyers, a law professor and Albuquerque residents — and attended numerous court hearings associated with the sting.
Here are the top-line findings:
- Twenty-eight of 103 defendants — or 27 percent — are African American in a city with a 3.3 percent black population. The operation netted 59 Hispanics, one Native American and 15 whites in a city where the non-Hispanic white population was 42 percent in 2010.
- Between 2006 and 2015, African Americans composed only about 5 percent of defendants in drug and gun crimes charged in federal court in New Mexico.
- ATF chose and put to work five confidential informants: three African Americans, two Hispanic. In some cases, those informants found targets at a black barbershop, at a soul food restaurant and in a park in a predominantly black neighborhood.
- The vast majority of cases involved drug buys for less than $5,000. Seasoned defense lawyers say such small amounts are highly unusual for federal cases. Normally, amounts range from about $15,000 into the millions of dollars, they say.
- Some of the ATF agents who descended on Albuquerque for the sting also oversaw or participated in operations in other cities that have drawn allegations of racial profiling, criticism in government reports and the ire of federal judges.
A legal scholar who has studied ATF stings observed how confidential informants fanned across certain neighborhoods in Albuquerque offering opportunities to commit crime resembled operations in other cities that provoked controversy.
“It’s not that these people aren’t guilty; they agreed to do the drug buy,” said Katie Tinto, a law professor at the University of California at Irvine. “The question is: is this good law enforcement? Is this good use of our dollars for who we want our law enforcement to go after and then who we want to imprison?”
Defense attorneys want to know how ATF chose which people to go after and how the bureau used informants. They have filed motions alleging “selective enforcement,” essentially illegal racial profiling, and ultimately, they plan to ask judges to dismiss charges against their clients.
“An agency with a troubled history took a traveling crew of agents with suspect backgrounds, including ones with demonstrated instances of racial targeting, employed a racially-stacked group of (confidential informants), deployed them in areas of the city overwhelmingly concentrated with minorities, and had them utilize their racial similarity as a means of breeding connection and trust,” federal public defender John Robbenhaar wrote in a motion. “This is discriminatory intent.”
New Mexico is now at least the fourth state where defense lawyers have alleged racial profiling by ATF. Federal prosecutors deny those claims, as they have elsewhere, and are refusing to turn over certain records about the operations.
ATF officials did not respond to NMID’s multiple requests for comment. Elizabeth Martinez, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque, which is prosecuting the 103 cases, declined to comment, saying the cases “involve motions that have yet to be ruled on by the Court.”
An April 5 hearing for Casanova’s case, however, displayed part of the agents’ rationale for arresting the people they did.
Special Agent Johnson, who helped oversee the Albuquerque sting and bought meth and a gun from Casanova, disputed that ATF chose targets based on race. His team looked for people with violent criminal histories and prominence in the city’s drug and illicit gun underworld, Johnson told a federal judge.
“If they are black, white, green, brown and don’t have the criminal history, they are not going to get pursued,” and vice-versa, Johnson said from the witness stand. “We tried to get the worst of the worst.”
The ATF operation relied on informants, people who are either paid by the government or are cooperating in exchange for leniency in their own criminal cases. Johnson’s team brought five to Albuquerque, deploying them to identify people who were “in the game,” selling large quantities of guns and drugs.
Many of the potential targets confidential informants brought to ATF weren’t pursued, Johnson said.
From behind a courtroom podium, Casanova’s lawyer, Brian Pori, vigorously cross-examined Johnson: Did his team have records showing how those decisions were made or the races of those ruled out?
No, Johnson said.
Johnson also testified under further questioning by Pori that ATF has no written guidelines for how to avoid bias in undercover investigations — or any training manuals at all for such operations.
“Me and the people I work with have no bias,” he told Pori.
ATF didn’t train its informants on how to look for would-be drug and gun sellers, either, Johnson said. In fact, agents trained them only on how to use a cellphone.
“Individuals with political power” brought Johnson’s team to Albuquerque because of its soaring crime rate, he said. He did not name them.
Detectives from the Albuquerque Police Department and other local agencies directed the team to a swath through the city’s southeast quadrant, Johnson testified. However, the local agencies showed him no statistics to suggest that part of town was more violent than any other.
APD officers were assigned to Johnson’s team and assisted in the operation, he said in court.
A few days after the hearing, Pori reflected on Johnson’s testimony.
“If they (ATF) don’t have procedures on how to select people and communities for enforcement in undercover sting operations, and if they only select neighborhoods of color, that needs to stop,” he told NMID. “If they only select people of color as confidential informants, that needs to stop. If they don’t train confidential informants at all, and they just let them go find kindred spirits, that needs to stop.”
‘A Violation of our Safe Place’
On a recent weekend, the Allsup’s at Zuni and Kentucky SE bustled with foot and vehicle traffic. People pushed shopping carts and carried armfuls of plastic bags. On the sidewalk a diverse mix of people chatted.
It is here, at Allsup’s, where Casanova’s acquaintance met the black ATF informant, court records show. A block or two down Zuni sits Albuquerque’s only government-run, medically staffed, short-term drug detox center. Next door is Trendsettas barbershop.
Trendsettas primarily serves an African American clientele, though Asians, Hispanics and whites occasionally come in for haircuts or to shoot the breeze, said Selinda Guerrero. Her longtime partner, a black man, manages the barbershop where African American informants found at least three targets in the ATF sting.
Informants also hung around a soul food restaurant near Gibson and San Pedro SE and roamed Kirtland Park, bordered by a large mural celebrating black history, looking for drugs and guns.
With offers of finder’s fees, they succeeded.
In a city where one of every 30 people is African American, the ATF used a five-person team of informants. Three were black, or 60 percent.
Barbershops have held deep significance in African American communities for generations.
“It’s a community hub, where people can come to vent about things, to socialize, to talk and get their hair cut,” Guerrero said of Trendsettas. “For (ATF) to do this is a violation of our safe place, and for them to use those tactics is grossly underhanded.”
Tinto, the law professor, said who ATF picks as informants helps determine who they catch. Black informants often lead agents to black people.
“Many of the choices that they make raise troubling racial implications,” Tinto said. “The use of confidential informants is often a way that law enforcement shields responsibility for who they choose (as targets), but they know who they choose as confidential informants.”
Black informants delivered at least 15 of the 28 African Americans people to agents in Albuquerque, NMID found.
Guerrero, who is also a community activist, questioned ATF’s claim that the sting made her neighborhood safer.
“These tactics didn’t benefit anybody, and I can’t imagine they reduced crime in our area, which badly needs it,” she said.
Federal public defenders in Albuquerque talked at work as cases from the ATF sting landed on their desks. The first pattern was clear for Pori and his colleagues.
“Twenty-seven percent” of those arrested by ATF were black. “That’s a shocking figure.”
It wasn’t just the comparison to Albuquerque’s small black population. Blacks composed just 5 percent of gun and drug crime defendants in U.S. District Court in New Mexico between 2006 and 2015, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission
More water-cooler chats led to the second revelation:
“It was very easy to see after a while that this is not the worst of the worst, this is the lowest of the lowly,” he said.
Worst of the worst?
Bernadette Tapia sat in the Albuquerque courtroom of U.S. District Judge James Browning on April 7.
Eight months earlier she was arrested for arranging a 58-gram meth sale to an undercover ATF agent. Now, clad in an orange jumpsuit and shackled, the 48-year-old sat at the defense table. Nearby in the gallery were a half-dozen family members and friends as she nervously peered over her glasses and joked with her public defender.
Many of the 103 people arrested in the ATF sting last year more closely resembled Tapia than the high-level criminals Phoenix ATF chief Atteberry invoked in his statements, NMID found. Atteberry described the operation as cutting “a distinctive path through the violent criminal element in the Albuquerque metropolitan area.”
Before the summer of 2016, Tapia had never been accused of a felony crime. She had worked 26 years in the medical profession. Two years ago one of her three children, a son, hanged himself, sending her into a tailspin. Diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety followed, her lawyer told Judge Browning.
By last summer, Tapia was sometimes living out of her car, essentially homeless, penniless, deep in the morass of meth addiction.
That’s when the ATF informant approached. He offered finder’s fees of drugs and money. Tapia and three others, including her daughter, made two sales to an ATF agent.
After pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute meth, she faced 57 to 71 months in federal prison.
“I’d like to apologize for my actions. I don’t feel I’m a bad person,” a tearful Tapia told Browning, adding that she’s been sober for nine months. The arrest, she said, “really opened my eyes to see things more clear.”
Browning called her case sympathetic and said it was clear she’d lost herself to “the devil itself of methamphetamine.”
“She’s not at the highest end of the rung in the Albuquerque drug world,” Browning, a George W. Bush appointee, said from the bench.
He sentenced her to 21 months, then three years of supervised release — a significant downward departure from the suggested sentence under the federal mandatory minimum regimen.
Browning encouraged Tapia to take this “one best shot” at turning her life around. Otherwise, “You’ll probably be dead somewhere in a car shooting methamphetamine,” he said.
In interviews, seven attorneys told NMID that most of their clients were drug addicts. Some of them were in treatment programs and had been clean before the informants approached them — often multiple times before the targets agreed to broker a drug deal. Some had children, but were homeless or, like Casanova and Tapia, were living in cars.
The attorneys, with the exception of Pori, spoke on the condition of anonymity because their clients are either awaiting sentencing or negotiating plea deals, and they did not wish to anger judges or prosecutors by speaking to a journalist.
Federal officials said in August that they seized 127 firearms, 17 pounds of meth, 2.5 pounds of heroin, 1.5 pounds of cocaine, 14 ounces of crack and 100 Ecstasy pills.
A closer look deflates those figures.
ATF is the nation’s preeminent law enforcement agency in the fight against gun crime. But just nine of the 103 defendants were charged solely with crimes involving guns; 23 more face gun and drug charges. Most were not charged with selling firearms.
Agents in Albuquerque seemed far more interested in drugs — and not in large quantities. The total drug forfeiture amount was $162,110, an amount attorneys interviewed by NMID said they’d expect to see in a one-defendant federal case, not spread among scores of people.
A review of federal court records from the sting showed prosecutors are demanding that defendants forfeit cash amounts ranging from $40 to $20,700. Some of those amounts are assigned to multiple defendants.
Forfeiture amounts, which represent how much money agents paid for drugs, are a good indicator of the quantity involved in a sale.
More than half of the forfeiture amounts are for less than $2,000, like Tapia’s. Another third are for between $2,000 and $5,000.
Pori, Casanova’s lawyer, said in his experience representing clients in the federal system over many years, the low end for forfeiture allegations is about $15,000 for a couple pounds of meth.
“I’ve never, never defended a case in U.S. District Court in which the guy’s accused of selling an ounce or a couple ounces of meth,” he said, referring to a few thousand dollars worth of the drug.
The other attorneys told similar stories. One of them has practiced in federal court for decades, and he could not remember representing such low-level clients.
“ATF was not even picking low-hanging apples,” one attorney said. “They were picking apples up off the ground.”
The sting did corral some individuals who appeared to be moving large quantities of drugs, but they appeared to be exceptions, NMID found.
The operation netted Antonio Perez-Contreras and Jesus Manuel Garcia, whom ATF agents say sold four pounds of meth to undercover officers over a month and a half, court records show. At the time of the sales, the pair were carrying multiple firearms, including assault-style rifles. Garcia sold one of the rifles to an agent.
The ATF operation also led to the arrest of Nathan Talamante, whom agents allege in an indictment sold them 100 grams or more of heroin on three separate occasions and meth on another occasion.
The sting helped local law enforcement solve a murder, Special Agent Johnson said in court, when one of the suspects approached an ATF informant to ask whether he could help “get rid of this dead body.” That case is pending in state court.
Johnson and Atteberry said they weren’t just looking for people moving lots of guns and drugs, but people with long, violent criminal histories.
Many of those arrested in the sting did not appear to match that description, according to NMID’s review of court records. That review was limited by incomplete information on some of the defendants.
Given that, about half appear to have previous felony convictions in the New Mexico state court system — many for drug possession and trafficking. Fewer than a quarter have past convictions for violent crimes such as aggravated assault, shooting at a vehicle, armed robbery or aggravated battery with a deadly weapon.
Some of the people swept up in the ATF sting had violent felony convictions in other states. It is unclear how many. NMID does not have access to the National Crime Information Centers database.
Nearly half appear to have no previous criminal charges in the federal courts, which is a different system, NMID found. We could not determine past federal histories for the other half.
As of last week, 46 of the 103 defendants have pleaded guilty, and 16 have been sentenced. A review of court records shows the average sentence is 3.5 years. The rest of those arrested in the sting have pleaded not guilty.
Officials pushed the operation into the federal system intentionally.
“The federal prosecution of these individuals, some of whom have significant criminal histories, puts the brakes on the turnstile justice often experienced in the state judicial system,” Atteberry said at the August news conference, flanked by a host of local and state law enforcement leaders.
The decision to funnel lower-level cases into federal court, with its stiffer mandatory sentences, raised a concern for Tinto, the law professor.
“They brought in these federal agents who have developed some sort of undercover specialty,” she said. “You’re not really seeing people who match the description of what you would expect when they bring in their experts to get the worst of the worst.”
Problems for ATF nationwide
ATF has endured criticism over several of its high-profile operations around the country during the past decade. Several veteran agents from those stings oversaw and participated in the Albuquerque busts last year, according to documents obtained in discovery by the Federal Public Defenders Office.
Agents Carlos Valles and Michael Ramos, who came to Albuquerque, worked the “phony stash house operations” in Chicago. Agents posed as disgruntled drug couriers and, using informants, recruited and arrested targets after luring them into a made-up scheme to rob a house filled with drugs.
Legal experts and newspaper investigations have concluded that ATF arrested disproportionate numbers of minorities in the Chicago cases and in other cities where the stings were repeated. USA Today in 2014 found 91 percent of people arrested during a 10-year period in the stash house cases around the country were racial or ethnic minorities.
A federal judge in central California described one such ATF operation as “trawling for crooks in seedy, poverty-ridden areas — all without an iota of suspicion that any particular person has committed similar conduct in the past.”
Defense lawyers in Chicago are battling with prosecutors over records related to the stings there, as the public defenders in Albuquerque have begun to do.
At Casanova’s April 5 hearing, Special Agent Johnson testified that he and Agent Richard Zayas oversaw the Albuquerque sting. Zayas wrote the training manuals for the stash house ruse and has run them in numerous cities for decades, court records show.
One of those operations was in Phoenix. In 2014, a federal appeals court judge wrote:
“It is deeply disturbing that Agent Zayas sent his paid (informant) to look for ‘bad guys’ in a ‘bad part of town,’ i.e. in a minority neighborhood. In an age of widely-reported unequal enforcement of the criminal laws, both at the state and federal levels, the sort of assignment given to the CI is an open invitation to racial discrimination.”
Newspapers and the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General also have criticized the agency for other failures, too, such as not properly managing agents and failing to track “high-risk” informants, including how much they were paid.
Johnson said from the witness stand that he had worked on undercover operations in other cities, too, but he did not name them.
He testified that he was aware of the criticism ATF stings elsewhere have garnered. But it had “no effect” on how he does his job.
‘He walked away with their money’
Yusef Casanova emerged from the cellblock at the privately run Torrance County Detention Center in Estancia, walking along a dim, narrow hallway toward a room flooded with fluorescent light.
Clad in khaki prison garb, Casanova took a chair and peered through the dirty glass into the brightly-lit room he could not enter.
A lone guard checked families pushing strollers into the echoey visiting room.
Casanova has slept in the prison every night since his arrest in July for selling meth and a gun to Special Agent Johnson.
Casanova, a tall, bald man, rubbed his head and picked up the phone, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose.
“Thanks for talking to me about this,” he said.
Casanova wasn’t hesitant to talk about his troubled life, the many horrors and mistakes he made that led to an undercover agent’s truck last June.
He said he was physically and sexually abused as a small child. His mother left him and his brother when he was 4 “to pursue her addiction.”
By the time he was 14, he had lived in 28 foster homes and a handful of youth mental health institutions in Massachusetts. One foster father, a white railroad worker who forced Casanova to call him “master,” kicked him in the face with a steel-toed boot when he was 8, knocking him unconscious.
“Everyone was moving around the house, going about their day when I woke up,” Casanova said. “No one helped me, and I came to the young man’s juvenile conclusion that I could very well die there.”
Casanova’s soft, steady tone almost never wavered during a two-hour interview.
He earned his high school equivalency and tried community college. With limited life skills, the freedom of living in a dorm and dating proved too much.
He moved to Albuquerque in the mid-1990s to start over. The reset showed promise, but it didn’t last.
An undercover Albuquerque Police officer approached him in a Downtown park with an offer of $5 to find a $10 bag of marijuana. Casanova spent seven months in the Metropolitan Detention Center. It was his first brush with the New Mexico criminal justice system.
Now, he’s facing more than a decade in federal prison for a deal that earned him a day’s worth of meth.
Casanova has been arrested more than 40 times, mostly for crimes such as shoplifting, trespassing or burglary — always, he said, in service of his addiction. There have been violent crimes, too: aggravated assault and armed robbery.
“All that time, I was living a life that wasn’t mine; I was not living the life I dreamed of or achieving goals,” he said.
None of his efforts to clean up has stuck. Last year, he tried again after another stint in jail. Casanova had a job painting cars and was in an outpatient rehabilitation program. But one night he used meth again, which cost him his job.
“Being the prideful guy that I am, I said screw it, and I was off to the races,” he said.
That last run led him to the ATF informant, whose many texts last June reminded Casanova of commercials for companies that offer an end to calls from bill collectors.
“Eventually I did call him back,” Casanova said. “He wanted something I didn’t have: two ounces of meth and a gun. I had to go on a treasure hunt for them; it’s difficult for someone living in a car.”
When he realized he had sold drugs and a gun to an undercover agent, Casanova remembered that he had bought sodas at the 7-Eleven for Johnson and the informant. “This is great, we even get refreshments,” he remembered Johnson saying.
Casanova said he believes the ATF violated his 14th Amendment rights, which prohibit discrimination based on race. It’s not lost on him that “John” was never arrested.
“He walked away with their money,” Casanova said. “I didn’t.”
Pori, Casanova’s lawyer, decried the ATF’s tactics, saying agents dangled an opportunity in front of a man with a heavy addiction they knew he couldn’t pass up while ignoring the man who supplied the drugs.
“When they say they could not identify John, the white drug dealer, that was the (purpose) of this enforcement action: to be able to identify bad guys,” he said. “And if John is a bad guy, then they really, really, really messed up.”
Pori pressed Special Agent Johnson at last month’s court hearing. Agents could be heard on the video of the transaction reading out the license plate number from “John’s” car.
What did the agents do to find him, Pori asked.
They ran the plate, which came back to a driver’s license. The photograph did not match the man from the transaction.
Pori asked if agents looked for the man on the driver’s license to find “John?”
No, Johnson answered.
Did the ATF subpoena Casanova’s cellphone records after watching him call “John” several times, Pori asked.
They did not, Johnson testified.
Pori conceded dismissals based on a claim of selective enforcement, or racial profiling, will be difficult. A judge would have to agree that defense attorneys have demonstrated intent and effect. But Judge Parker has agreed to review information about the informant who targeted Pori’s client.
Casanova said he wants a reduced sentence, based on ATF’s conduct, such as another year in prison then a four-year commitment to Delancey Street, the rigorous, in-patient drug rehab center.
He wasn’t hopeful.
“I’m not saying what I did was right, and I acknowledge that I need to make some deep, fundamental changes in my life,” he said. “I’m 44 years old, I have no family … The worst of the worst? I was the brokest of the broke. They’re telling me 10 years or more now. I’ll be 54 or 55 when I get out. Then what?”
NMID’s Marjorie Childress and Trip Jennings contributed analysis to this story.