Sheriff Manual Gonzalez III was welcomed to the White House last week to speak with President Trump on Wednesday about a supposed surge of violent crime in Albuquerque and other US cities, and the possibility of deploying federal agents to those cities in response. Later on Wednesday US Attorney General William P. Barr confirmed this possibility when he announced the launch of Operation Legend—an initiative to greatly expand the presence of federal agents in Albuquerque, Chicago and Kansas City.
Many are concerned that this deployment of federal agents will look much like the unidentified federal “snatch teams” that are currently kidnapping people off the streets in Portland, Oregon in response to protests there. Others are concerned that it is a blatant military occupation of these specifically Democrat-led cities.
Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, Mayor Tim Keller, Senator Tom Udall, Congresswoman Deb Haaland, Albuquerque City Attorney Esteban Aguilar, Jr., City Councillor Pat Davis and Albuquerque Chief of Police Mike Geier all released responses in opposition to this move from the Trump administration.
Senator Martin Heinrich went further and called for Sheriff Gonzalez to resign, saying, “Instead of collaborating with the Albuquerque Police Department, the Sheriff is inviting the President’s stormtroopers into Albuquerque. If we can learn anything from Portland, it’s that we don’t need this kind of 'help' from the White House. The President is currently using federal law enforcement agents like a domestic paramilitary force. That’s precisely how fascism begins and none of us should ever encourage or accept it.”
On a phone call, City Councilor Lan Sena pointed out that this is not the first time Sheriff Gonzalez has come under fire for spurning public opinion and the demands of other elected officials.
“To be quite frank, there were these discussions [about Sheriff Gonzalez resigning] before when he refused to have body cams for his officers. And even now he has this excuse of being able to use cellphones instead of body cams. I think committing those funds to body cams would be a much better use of the funding [that’s being used to send Operation Legend here].”
The BCSO immediately issued a response, calling Heinrich and other politicians’ statements “propaganda” and an “attempt to distract from Albuquerque’s extreme crime crisis.”
According to reports from the FBI, overall crime has gone down in Albuquerque from 2017 through 2019. According to data from CrimeMapping.com, which gathers data from APD records, of 454 recorded crimes from June 1 to July 23, 362 of them were for “disturbing the peace.”
As an APD spokesperson told KUNM last Friday, "2017 was the high point in both property crime and violent crime. Property crime went down in 2018, [in] 2019 and continues to drop this year. Violent crime is mostly flat with some increases and some decreases. ... The one statistic we produce real-time for the media is homicides. We are currently at 37 homicides for 2020. We were at 44 homicides at this time in 2018 and 2019."
Attorney General Barr’s statement last week regarding the Operation Legend expansion credits the recent movement to “demonize” and defund police departments as the cause of this spike in gun crime in large cities—pointing specifically to New York City, where the mayor has agreed to cut $1 billion from the city’s police department and where a 25 percent rise in homicide has occurred this year. However, those budget cuts haven’t actually taken place yet and, therefore, could not be responsible for a decrease in policing or a resulting increase in violence.
After Mayor Keller’s strongly worded letter in opposition to Operation Legend coming to Albuquerque, his administration issued a somewhat weaker response on Friday, when it became clear that the agents were coming to the city whether it approved or not.
In a letter sent to John Anderson, the US Attorney for New Mexico, the administration states, “The City asks for your written commitment that any federal agents sent to Albuquerque as part of Operation Legend will not be used to police First Amendment assemblies, nor target people or communities of colors or immigrant families. We ask for your written commitment that these agents will focus on continuing the existing operations based on our partnership and continue to focus on high-level drug offenses, human trafficking offenses, federal crimes against children and gun crimes.
“We further ask for your written commitment that, whenever detaining or arresting individuals in Albuquerque, all federal agents will conspicuously identify themselves as such, carry and display identification, and wear uniforms that conspicuously identify the agency for which they work.”
It’s unclear how legally binding a “written commitment” from the US Attorney would be.
The BCSO has a history of bringing in federal agencies to help with local arrests. In June they worked with the FBI Violent Crimes Task Force to recover a stolen pickup truck in south Bernalillo County and asked for the assistance of the United States Marshals Service in tracking down a 19-year-old accused of shooting a man in Tijeras in May.
In response to Sheriff Manny Gonzalez going over the heads of the majority of elected officials in Albuquerque, ProgressNow NM has started a petition to urge him to resign. In an email the Weekly Alibi received, County Commissioner James M. Collie said of efforts to remove Sheriff Gonzalez from office, “That office is established by the NM constitution and is answerable only to the voting citizens of the county. The recourse for voters is to use the recall provisions of the constitution to remove him from office, or to not elect him again in November.”
This close partnership between BCSO and federal agencies is due largely to Albuquerque’s participation in Operation Relentless Pursuit, an initiative launched by Barr in December of last year. The operation, which seeks to “[combat] violent crime in seven of America’s most violent cities through a surge in federal resources,” dedicated money and agents from several federal agencies to Albuquerque, Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, Memphis and Milwaukee.
This partnership between BCSO and federal agencies notwithstanding, this new deployment of agents to Democrat-led cities is different because it is happening against the will of the mayors and other elected officials of those cities.
In an email to his constituents last week, Councilor Pat Davis brought up the “surge” of federal officers brought to Albuquerque in 2016 that targeted Black and Hispanic men in the International District.
“In 2016, the then-US Attorney invited a secret federal group to target gun violence in Albuquerque’s International District. At the press conference after, officials announced that they had made more than 100 arrests in just a few weeks using special federal tactics they wouldn’t disclose. … Testimony from federal agents later revealed that agents brought in Black and Hispanic professional paid informants who targeted Black barbershops, restaurants and even an addiction recovery home in Southeast.”
In his statement last Wednesday, Barr described the supposed scope of this new operation.
“To carry out Operation Legend, federal law enforcement agencies will be committing additional resources to these cities including resources from the FBI, the DEA, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the U.S. Marshals, and the Department of Homeland Security. To date, we have sent over 200 federal agents to Kansas City, we are directing a comparable [number] to augment Chicago’s existing violent crime initiatives, and we are providing more than 35 agents to Albuquerque.”
Without specifically citing Portland, Barr made it clear that the Operation Legend agents being sent to these three cities will differ from the snatch teams deployed in Portland.
“This is different than the operations and tactical teams we use to defend against riots and mob violence. We will continue to confront mob violence. But, the operations we are discussing today are very different—they are classic crime fighting.”
While the unidentified federal agents in Portland were nominally deployed to “protect federal property” such as the courthouse, in practice they have been taking people they deem protestors off the streets without an arrest warrant, without telling them what they’re being charged with and without reading them their rights.
In a viral video circulating last week, a Navy veteran who was protesting peacefully is shown being beaten with batons and pepper-sprayed by these federal officers. In later reports the man said that this violent response occurred after he reminded the officers of their oath to protect US citizens’ constitutional rights. His hand was broken in the attack.
In defense of the Trump Administration’s deployment of federal agents to Albuquerque, GOP Chairman of New Mexico Steve Pearce mentioned in a statement that,“Albuquerque is home to many federal facilities, including national labs, AFRL [Air Force Research Laboratories] and a military base. … The federal government has a vested interest in seeing that New Mexico has safe streets and that these sensitive facilities have a stable environment in which to operate.”
Neither Sandia National Labs nor Kirtland Air Force Base have been threatened by crime or by recent protests this year.
As the deployment in Portland has already exceeded their originally stated purpose by “arresting” people who posed no active threat to federal property, it is very much questionable whether we should trust the originally stated purpose of the Operation Legend agents coming to Albuquerque.
Whatever the actual purpose of this new force, it’s clear that many city officials doubt the genuineness of Barr’s words. In a statement, City Attorney Esteban Aguilar, Jr. said, “Federal agents in Oregon are snatching protesters off the street without identifying their agency or establishing probable cause. It is an unconstitutional affront to representative democracy. These forces do not abide by the constitutional crime fighting reforms implemented under the DOJ and will break the trust APD and our community have invested years in rebuilding.”
In an email to constituents last week, City Councilor Pat Davis encouraged Burqueños to not necessarily trust the stated reason for the influx of the Operation Legend agents.
“I join Mayor Keller in saying that we have to be on guard for the bait and switch we’ve come to expect from Trump and Barr.”
Peter Simonson, Executive Director of ACLU New Mexico, shares Councilor Davis’ and Mayor Keller’s doubts.
“I don’t believe they're here to protect public safety, but to provoke scenes of conflict and try to create some impression of lawlessness that requires a law and order president—namely, Trump. This president doesn’t do anything that isn’t meant to increase his chances of reelection. Nothing he's done in the past four years has not been predicated on the basis of strengthening his base, and you have to read this tactic in that light.”
Additionally, it would be surprising if these federal agents were actually being sent to Albuquerque to quell protests, because there simply haven’t been that many protests in Albuquerque in recent weeks as compared to other US cities—and because the only violence committed at the protests that have occurred has been by law enforcement agents and counter-protestors.
Many believe that it’s a political stunt to boost numbers for Trump in this year’s election. Simonson believes that political stunt could take a few different forms.
“You have to conclude that this is politically motivated and not intended to serve a legitimate law enforcement purpose. Going beyond there, you have to imagine a couple scenarios. One is to embarrass a potential vice president candidate [Governor Michelle Lujan-Grisham, who’s currently being vetted by the Biden campaign]. Another is simply to harass a liberal mayor because it plays well with Trump's base. The most ominous possibility is not only is the President looking to create scenes of conflict that he can run in his campaign ads, but may also be looking toward the election and having these officers playing some nefarious role when November 3 comes. I don’t put anything past this president, because anytime we thought he had reached a limit, he has pushed the envelope further. And I think even now we’re not fully aware of the lengths he is willing to go to stay in office.”
The possibility of these Operation Legend agents staying in the city until the November election for the purpose of militarized voter suppression is perfectly conceivable. While this breach of constitutional rights seems beyond the pale, this administration has, as Simonson says, continued to push the envelope of what the country will tolerate from its highest elected leader.
“We have to stop being surprised every time this president pushes the envelope further. Violating norms and expectations that we've never seen violated before. We need to start anticipating his moves based on his past behavior,” warns Simonson. “And when you do that you come up with some pretty grim scenarios.”
With a lack of uniform and lack of identification likely with these Operation Legend agents, it has been speculated that local paramilitary groups might take advantage of the confusion to abduct people they deem leftists or organizers. Business Insider recently ran an article pointing out that bullet-proof vests and badges that say “POLICE” can be purchased online cheaply and easily; not everyone who wears them is who they say they are.
Weekly Alibi encourages the citizens of Albuquerque to keep themselves and each other safe in this unprecedented moment. At this point in time, there is no concrete proof that the stated purpose of this team of federal agents is their actual purpose. Have your phones ready to record any encounter with unidentified or out-of-uniform law enforcement agents; take photos of their license plates as well. Doing this is completely within your constitutional rights—but still, try to keep a safe distance. Do not under any circumstances bait or engage with these agents, and if a protest organizer or online political wonk is encouraging you to do so, do not trust them either. If it’s true that these agents are simply here to assist local police clear their backlog of homicide cases, then let them do so. If, on the other hand, these agents are here to sow discord and get photos of “unrest” for President Trump to use in his re-election campaign, do not give them what they want.
If you witness an encounter with unidentified law enforcement agents in Albuquerque and have photo or video documentation, please reach out to the Alibi. You can remain anonymous in our reporting.