New Mexico In Depth
Stung in Albuquerque: ATF descends on New Mexico’s largest city with questionable results
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.
One of the men who helped the federal bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) search for potential targets in a sweeping undercover drug and gun sting operation in Albuquerque last year is paid an $80,000 annual salary, court filings show. The man appears to have been released early from a 10-year federal prison sentence and goes “around the country with his handlers creating crime for the government to prosecute” as a ‘“confidential informant,” the documents say. Another informant ATF brought to Albuquerque for the operation is paid $1,400 a week plus occasional “bonuses,” he said under oath, according to a recording from a state court hearing obtained by New Mexico In Depth. He did not say what the bonuses were for. That informant considers working for the ATF his full-time job.
On May 7, New Mexico In Depth published a story that closely examined the mechanics and results of a high-profile undercover sting operation conducted by the federal bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) last year in Albuquerque. At a news conference in August, federal officials trumpeted the sting operation as an “unprecedented” success, saying they brought in “the best of the best to deal with the worst of the worst.”
NMID found a far more complicated picture. Rather than the “worst of the worst,” ATF arrested many low-level individuals who were struggling with substance abuse issues. Some were homeless or living in cars. Many of those arrested were not the violent, hardened criminals or the big-time traffickers federal officials said they were after.
Black community leaders and citizens want to know who invited out-of-town federal agents and informants into Albuquerque and how the decision was made to focus an undercover sting operation on an impoverished, largely minority section of the city, netting a highly disproportionate number of black defendants. They plan to put those and other questions into a letter to the federal bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “We want to know exactly what happened and why,” said Patrick Barrett, a member of the two organizations drafting the letter — the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Sankofa Men’s Leadership Exchange, a grassroots organization of black men. Barrett and others interviewed for this story were reacting to a NMID investigation of the sting published last month. NMID found 28 of the 103 people arrested — or 27 percent — were black in Albuquerque, whose black population is 3 percent.
A federal judge in Albuquerque has concluded the methods used by federal agents in a 2016 undercover sting operation made it likely they would arrest a disproportionate number of minorities. And the bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) did nothing to avoid the potential racial bias as agents chose people to target, Senior U.S. District Judge James Parker, a Ronald Reagan appointee, wrote in a five-page order issued Monday. Parker’s ruling means Yusef Casanova, who was arrested last year, has the go-ahead to seek evidence to prove the agency targeted him at least in part because he was black. Casanova’s procedural legal victory comes as black community leaders in Albuquerque demand answers from federal and local officials about the operation. Agents arrested 103 people — 28 of whom were black, or 27 percent — a dramatic overrepresentation compared to Albuquerque’s 3 percent black population.
Black community leaders and citizens have taken to the airwaves to call for reform as more information surfaces about a federal sting operation that arrested a disproportionate number of blacks in a city with comparatively few African Americans. Earlier this month, I interviewed leaders from several black community groups, as well as black citizens, for a New Mexico In Depth story about the design of the 2016 criminal operation conducted by the federal bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF). The ATF operation used three black and two Hispanic confidential informants (none were white) and focused on a low-income, largely minority section of southeast Albuquerque. Last week on NMPBS’s public affairs show, New Mexico In Focus, I continued that discussion with Patrick Barrett of the local chapter of the NAACP and Janette McClelland, a resident of one of the neighborhoods targeted in the operation. (NMPBS is an NMID partner.
The acting U.S. Attorney in Albuquerque will hear out local black leaders and their concerns over a massive, 2016 undercover sting operation that “sent shockwaves” through the city’s black community. Acting U.S. Attorney James Tierney agreed to meet in a July 11 letter to the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the grassroots Sankofa Men’s Leadership Exchange. The groups’ leadership contacted Tierney after a series of stories by New Mexico In Depth that examined the operation conducted by the federal bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF). The operation scooped up 28 African Americans — out of 103 arrested — or 27 percent, an “alarming” statistic, Dr. Harold Bailey noted in the NAACP’s letter. Bailey is the president of the local NAACP chapter.
Jennifer Padilla’s boyfriend was pleading: Call people you used to run with, hook me up with some meth deals so I can pay off my Florida partners.
He’d been robbed and needed cash, he kept saying. He’d be hurt if she didn’t.
On parole after a year in prison for a string of Santa Fe burglaries and struggling to stay off drugs, Padilla was conflicted. Stepping back into the drug world unnerved her, but she refused to see the man she loved in danger. Two calls to three old acquaintances led to a pair of methamphetamine deals last July. Even though she wasn’t present for either, the calls cost Padilla, then 37, her freedom.
An Albuquerque city councilor is calling for a congressional investigation of a massive, undercover federal sting operation that targeted a poor, largely minority section of his district last year in an attempt to blunt the city’s gun and drug crime. Pat Davis, a Democrat who represents the International District and is running for Congress himself, filed a resolution on Friday that, if passed by the Albuquerque City Council, would ask New Mexico’s congressional delegation to push for hearings on the sting operation. The four-month sting was undertaken by the federal bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF). In addition, the resolution asks the ATF and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which is prosecuting the 103 people arrested in the sting, to apprise city officials of the details of the operation. The resolution, which will be formally introduced at a Sept.
Jennifer Padilla likely won’t spend a single day locked up in federal prison. Under an agreement accepted Wednesday by U.S. District Judge William P. “Chip” Johnson, the 39-year-old mother of five received 24 months behind bars instead of the 10 to 13 years prosecutors originally wanted. Arrested in August 2016 on methamphetamine trafficking and conspiracy charges, Padilla is one of scores of people who were dubbed among Albuquerque’s “worst of the worst” after their arrests in a controversial 2016 undercover sting by the federal bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Padilla’s reduced sentence followed allegations she made in court motions that an ATF informant exploited their romantic relationship to lure her into a crime she would not otherwise have committed. NMID independently verified many of Padilla’s claims and laid them out in a story co-published with the Santa Fe Reporter on Aug.
Damon Martinez says he would take “seriously” allegations of racial profiling and other questionable tactics alleged about a four-month federal drug and gun sting operation last year if he were still U.S. Attorney for the District of New Mexico. But he won’t say how he viewed his responsibilities for the operation while in the job, which he held until March of this year. He won’t even say whether his former job would have included oversight of the increasingly controversial sting operation despite U.S. Department of Justice manuals describing some of those responsibilities. “I can’t discuss the facts concerning this case,” Martinez said of the 2016 operation, conducted largely by the federal bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF). More than half a dozen times during an interview with New Mexico In Depth and New Mexico in Focus, Martinez claimed a host of restrictions that he said barred him from answering most questions — even those involving his opinion — about the operation.
Former U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez refused to answer numerous questions about a 2016 “worst of the worst” operation conducted by the federal bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives. But he had plenty to say about another “worst of the worst” case that involved the ATF and Davon Lymon, who is accused of killing Albuquerque Police Department officer Daniel Webster in 2015.
Criticism of a massive undercover drug- and gun-crime sting spilled into the Albuquerque mayoral race last week, when candidates were pressed about a 2016 federal law enforcement operation that netted a disproportionate number of black people. It was a serious question, made all the more serious by the man asking: Joe Powdrell, a longtime local activist past president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which sponsored the Sept. 8 forum. The operation has drawn community and legal scrutiny for alleged racial profiling and for scooping up many who did not fit the “worst of the worst” profile trumpeted by federal officials after New Mexico In Depth investigations. Picking up on the alleged racial targeting, Powdrell asked the candidates “where your head is at in terms of this biased policing.”
Only three of the seven candidates who attended the forum addressed the sting directly.
Senior U.S. District Judge James Parker / Courtesy of U.S. District Court
A federal judge has denied an Albuquerque black man’s request to dismiss methamphetamine trafficking and gun charges based on his claim that agents targeted him because of his race during a monthslong undercover sting operation in 2016. In a 15-page order issued Feb. 11, U.S. Senior District Judge James Parker appeared to wrestle with whether agents from the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) had singled out 46-year-old Yusef Casanova and other black people for arrest while ignoring the crimes of white people. That was the core of Casanova’s argument in asking Parker to dismiss his case. Noting that aspects of the operation — and the results of other ATF operations around the country — were “troubling,” Parker, wrote that Casanova had not overcome the high threshold necessary to prove illegal racial profiling.
Tim Hotle, a 12-year veteran of the Albuquerque Police Department, in sworn testimony this week undercut federal authorities’ long-running narrative about a controversial 2016 law enforcement operation that snatched up disproportionate numbers of blacks and Hispanics. During his 45 minutes or so on the witness stand, Hotle told U.S. Senior District Judge James Parker that as a representative of APD he had helped plan the Albuquerque operation pushed by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the local U.S. Attorney’s Office. Authorities have repeatedly contended they arrested “the worst of the worst,” and a summary report of the operation stated that its goal was to infiltrate drug trafficking organizations “facilitated by” Mexican cartels. Most of the 103 people arrested, however, were picked up for their involvement in small-quantity drug sales; few had the types of violent criminal histories authorities said they were going after. Hotle’s testimony further undermined the federal government’s claims.
“We weren’t after the higher-level guys,” Hotle said from the stand during a court hearing involving one of the defendants arrested in the operation.