Competing narratives have emerged about how agents from the federal bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) chose targets for a sweeping undercover sting operation in Albuquerque last year.
A handful of defense attorneys who represent people arrested in the sting allege “selective enforcement” — essentially that ATF engaged in racial profiling as part of the agency’s strategy.
They point to statistics: 28 of the 103 defendants are black — 27 percent — in a city with a 3 percent black population, and in a state where blacks made up just 5 percent of drug and gun defendants in federal court from 2006 to 2015.
The defense lawyers also have questioned some of ATF’s tactics, many of which were detailed in a pair of New Mexico In Depth stories published last month, as they seek more information about the operation and, ultimately, dismissal of their clients’ charges.
ATF has repeatedly ignored NMID’s request for comment about the operation. But sworn court testimony in April from one of the lead agents provided a window into the agency’s perspective.
Special Agent Russell Johnson testified that ATF chose whom to pursue and arrest based on two factors: whether the person had an extensive, violent criminal history, and whether he or she was actively trafficking in large quantities of drugs and guns in the city.
Johnson flatly denied the racial profiling allegations and said individuals’ race had nothing to do with ATF’s choices.
One area of agreement between ATF and the defense attorneys is which part of town agents focused on for the operation: a swath of the southeast portion of the city that includes the “International District,” known more harshly as the “War Zone.”
NMID assembled two maps to help readers better understand and analyze for themselves where ATF agents deployed their confidential informants to look for people to target.
NMID has two sets of data points that define the area of town in which ATF operated.
The first comes from Johnson’s April testimony. He at first testified that he understood the “southeast quadrant” to be bordered by Interstate 25 and Interstate 40. Under questioning from Assistant Federal Public Defender Brian Pori, Johnson narrowed the area, saying the Albuquerque Police Department and other agencies directed his team “to the area around Central, you know, going to Wyoming … going back west and then branching out both north and south.”
The second set of data points comes from information in a public defender’s spreadsheet admitted as evidence in the case of one of the 103 defendants. The spreadsheet shows the location of where confidential informants first contacted people who were eventually arrested in 13 cases.
Those locations are mostly within the area of town in which ATF primarily focused.
Utilizing the geographic boundaries described in court testimony and the list of “first contact” locations as a base, NMID created two maps.
The maps show first contact locations with red pins, and we’ll update the map as we receive information about more locations where informants first met defendants. Click on each pin for information about the location and the defendant.
One map shows the proximity of African American neighborhoods–those that have a higher than average of black population–to first contact locations, which included a black barbershop, a soul food restaurant, a park in one of the city’s only primarily black neighborhoods and several convenience stores.
The second map shows the per capita income of different areas of Albuquerque, using 2016 demographic estimates based on Census 2010 geographies. First contact locations known to NMID are almost entirely in an area of the city with some of the lowest income levels.
To be clear, the ATF sting impacted people in a section of the city with more blacks and more poor people than in other areas of Albuquerque. But Johnson said in court that’s because local agencies, including APD, directed his team to that part of the city.
The local departments showed ATF no data to suggest that swath of Albuquerque was more or less crime-ridden than any other, he testified. And neither he nor anyone else at ATF was familiar with the economic or racial makeup of any portion of the city in advance of the operation.
Missing so far from NMID’s mapping analysis is any information about crime, especially violent crime, in different areas of Albuquerque. NMID is requesting detailed crime data from the city and will update the maps with that information if we receive it.