NM governor makes foes on front lines of drug war

Tuesday, July 25th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

He stands by last year's call for legalization

ANTHONY, N.M. – In a neighborhood just off Interstate 10, a mix of trailers and single-family homes where dirt roads outnumber paved ones, a squad of undercover police officers dressed in black storms a property littered with beer bottles.

Inside a long tan trailer are a man and two women ­ one of them allegedly responsible for more than 50 small packs of cocaine, ready for sale.

As police make their arrest and search for more evidence, two young brothers in a yard across the street on summer school break splash in a plastic pool, paying little attention to the police officers with guns and ski masks.

It's the reality, they say, that Gov. Gary Johnson doesn't understand when he advocates decriminalization of drugs. Here, on the front lines of the state's drug war, the problem's intractability is apparent.

Officers have arrested people in the tan trailer before. Busts aren't unusual in this poor neighborhood where the flow of drugs from Mexico is as fluid as the nearby Rio Grande. Repeat arrests are also the reason Mr. Johnson has labeled the war on drugs "a miserable failure."

He hasn't backed down in the year since he first suggested that existing policies weren't working.

The officers are undeterred by what they see as a chief executive out of touch with reality. They see the recurring arrests along the border as a reason to crack down, not decriminalize.

The two sides remain as far apart as Santa Fe to the north, with its museums, fine restaurants and upscale boutiques, is to Anthony in the south, with its dirt lawns, corner grocery stores, run-down bars and mom-and-pop eateries.

"There are just so many drugs here it's impossible to address all of the drug problems," said Sgt. Denis Romero, special agent-in-charge for the Metro Narcotics Agency. "From day one, our task has been to focus on our community. We focus on quality-of-life issues."

Metro Narcotics, one of the oldest joint task forces in the nation, is the only multi-agency operation at the state level charged with battling drugs in Doña Ana County, containing about a half-dozen municipalities and 120,000 residents.

The agency is made up of representatives from the various local law enforcement departments, including Las Cruces police, Doña Ana County sheriff, New Mexico state police, New Mexico State University police and the district attorney's office.

Governor's view

Mr. Johnson, a Republican in his second term, says government spends too much money on such units to battle an issue that should not be criminal. He blames laws prohibiting drugs for their widespread use.

"We used to do what we're doing to drug users to alcohol users, and it didn't work," Mr. Johnson said in his Capitol office. "I still believe that if we were to legalize marijuana and talk about harm-reduction strategies with regard to other drugs, that we could drastically eliminate the problems that we have in this country.

"The problems are that we are arresting, we are incarcerating this country. And the fact is that half the money that we are spending on law enforcement, half the money we're spending on the courts and half the money that we are spending on prisons are drug-related."

Such talk frustrates law enforcement officials in Doña Ana, who say the drug war is more intense today than ever.

"It has grown in sophistication and technology and danger," said Chief Bill Baker of the Las Cruces Police Department. "To have a public official such as the governor express a view, which is so controversial and so apparently anti-law enforcement, is a real slap on the face for those officers."

The governor sees it as an issue of misplaced priorities.

"Law enforcement will point to this crime, that crime, this crime, that crime ... " Mr. Johnson said. "But so much of their focus is on dealing and use and possession."

"The distinction I was trying to draw was very simply, 'You do drugs and you do harm, that's always going to be against the law.' By harm, I mean to anybody else, put anybody else in harm's way, then that ought to be against the law."

Seeing harm

Those with a badge argue that drug use is not a victimless crime, especially in a community that is sparsely populated, has a low per-capita income and little industry, and where drugs are readily available and affordable.

"I don't think there is anybody more in this world who doesn't know somebody or has a family member who has been ravaged by drugs," Sgt. Romero said.

In Doña Ana County , users vary from people in their late teens to their 60s.

"It's not confined to a single ethnic or racial class, or even social or economic class," Sgt. Romero said. "Cocaine is the drug of choice here."

Authorities on the border don't expect to ever completely seal off the drug flow: "People who move drugs are motivated by money, so they're going to find a way to circumvent the system," Sgt. Romero said.

But they go after anyone bringing drugs into the community ­ from small dopers to organized cartel leaders.

The cases run the gamut: From routine arrests, such as a recent one at a home in Santa Teresa Country Club that involved the seizure of 2,800 pounds of cocaine, to more high-profile cases, such as the one last October that included the arrest of the top law enforcement official in the nearby tourist town of Mesilla.

Town Marshal Miguel O. Gonzales and his son, Michael Gonzales, were among 21 people arrested on charges related to a two-year investigation involving narcotics. Magistrate court records for those arrested list a number of charges including racketeering, prostitution, cocaine and heroin trafficking at a bar and motel in Las Cruces called Welcome Inn, owned by the marshal. A trial is pending.

Some of the residents who have grown accustomed to drugs in their neighborhoods, said the governor's comments makes some sense.

"Who wouldn't want the drug problem to disappear?" said Maria Reyes, a widowed 64-year-old grandmother, who moved to Anthony from Juarez 16 years ago.

"But to have them out in the open or continue to have them underground ­ what's better? I don't know," Ms. Reyes said.

"You always hear about arrests being made here and there. They [drug dealers and users] get punished and they continue doing the same thing."

Others, who have seen the effects of drugs first-hand, disagree.

"Drugs are a part of this community, big-time, but it doesn't make it right," said Toni Soto, 45, a school bus driver. "If they would eliminate drugs, I believe this community would be safer."


Ms. Soto, a Republican who says she voted for Mr. Johnson, is disappointed with his views.

"It makes me sad," she said. "I would like to see him sit in the middle of it, to have been a part of the community like I was. I have friends who died of overdoses. When you are in the middle of it and see all that harm, you can relate. When you're living on the edge, when you are just surviving and that's it, then you can understand."

Sgt. Romero said that while the governor's stance on the drug issue is bothersome, it doesn't preclude officers on his unit from doing their jobs. Narcotic officers, he said, are "proactive, confident, self-starters with conviction."

"No matter what a governor says, it's not going to change your conviction. You do what you do because you believe that it [drugs] is wrong and it's bad."

"He's entitled to his position," Sgt. Romero said of the governor. "My position is that drugs are still illegal. I'm going to continue to enforce those laws and protect the community."