By Buggs for Borderland Beat

On February 9, 2023, at around 10pm a New Mexico state police officer clocked a white Dodge Durango travelling at 125 miles per hour on interstate highway I-25 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The vehicle fled at high speed and ultimately, the vehicle crashed after exiting the freeway sustaining heavy front damage after hitting a cinder block wall. Inside the vehicle were Edward Vallez, 42, and Jonathan Acuna, 22, who attempted to flee the scene on foot. Acuna was held at gunpoint by a citizen before officers arrived, while Vallez was caught an hour later with head injuries as a result of the crash.

Inside the car, officers found three cell phones, a cache of drugs and money. The FBI says roughly $130,000 in cash was inside the car, along with approximately 230,000 fentanyl pills. Both suspects were arrested on state charges related to the crash. According to news reports, Acuna was arrested for leaving a scene of the crash and resisting, evading, or obstructing an officer. Acuna was eventually released from jail on bond. Vallez was arrested on charges of crimes related to the crash, including speeding, DWI, and leaving the scene of a crash. Except, Vallez was held in jail in relation to a federal warrant for probation violation.

According to documents filed in federal court, Vallez has been arrested 27 times in New Mexico. The traffic stop piqued the interest of the FBI because Vallez is an alleged member of the Sureños gang who was on probation at the time. His residence was recently among 15 locations raided by the Violent Gang Task Force since September of 2022 as part of a violent spree involving racketeering and drug distribution.

Vallez belonged to a network of gang members distributing large amount of drugs in Albuquerque, including large amounts of Fentanyl.

The Albuquerque FBI Violent Gang Task Force executed 16 federal search warrants in various locations in and around Albuquerque on September 1, 2022, as part of an ongoing RICO/VICAR investigation targeting violent street and prison gangs.

More than a dozen federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, including SWAT teams from the Albuquerque, Denver, and El Paso FBI field offices, participated in what could be the largest ever fentanyl takedown in New Mexico.

Among the items seized:

More than 1 million fentanyl pills.
142 pounds of methamphetamine.
$2 million in cash.
37 firearms.
6 vehicles, including 2 stolen ones.
9 ballistic vests and a ballistic baseball cap.
2 hand grenades.

FBI agent in charge in Albuquerque could not recall a bigger seizure of money or drugs in the state of New Mexico. The national director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) called the drug bust in Albuquerque the “largest” in the Bureau’s history. “In September, our Albuquerque office conducted the largest takedown of fentanyl ever for the FBI,” Director Christopher Wray said in a video posted on YouTube (below). It was “enough fentanyl to have killed thousands of people,” according to Wray.

Seven years ago, the FBI launched Operation Atonement, with the goal of dismantling the notorious Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico (SNM) prison gang whose violent crimes included a plot to kill New Mexico’s corrections secretary. This high-profile bust marks the latest twist in a massive seven-year criminal investigation by the FBI into the ultraviolent Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico. The 42-year-old prison gang that operates inside and outside prison walls has been crippled in recent years by more than 160 arrests of its members and associates and five federal racketeering trials that landed its top leader and 11 other gang members in federal prison for life. Eleven homicides have been solved in the investigation to date.

Despite all that, the gang is involved in substantial drug trafficking activities, firearm-related offenses, and numerous homicides. The homicide rate in Albuquerque has been increasing in the last three years, breaking records year after year. Most of it due to illicit drugs and gang violence.

Recently, the FBI uncovered evidence that SNM had partnered with the Sureños and West Side Locos (WSL) in furtherance of drug trafficking, homicides, and other crimes.

Now the FBI believes the members of the Sureños, a California-based gang linked to the Mexican Mafia prison gang have stepped in to help the SNM continue its mission of violence, revenge, and illicit drug distribution in New Mexico.

The number of Sureños has increased in Albuquerque in recent years, with some of those being released from federal prison choosing to settle in New Mexico rather than return to California.

One confidential informant was quoted as saying, “A lot of California Sureños were not returning to California due to tougher laws there, the cost of living, and the fact that New Mexico was an ‘easy place to live … and be us’ (Sureños).”

The Sureños have significantly more personnel on the street and in custody, and informants have reported the Sureños have taken over the illicit drug market in Albuquerque, unloading hundreds of pounds of methamphetamine a week and tens of thousands of fentanyl pills.

“The instant investigation pertains to an intergang conspiracy between the SNM, Sureños, and WSL to commit murder in aid of racketeering and the distribution of controlled substances within the District of New Mexico, and elsewhere,” Special Agent Bryan Acee wrote in an affidavit in support of the search warrants.

Acee wrote that multiple sources have “indicated the Sureños intended to better organize, direct and/or broker fentanyl and methamphetamine sales within the various Hispanic street gangs in the Albuquerque area.” The gang network seems to be a mid-level traffic organization buying the lethal Fentanyl from the Mexican cartels, such as the Sinaloa Cartel.

At the same time, The SNM, with assistance from the Sureños, are seeking to make ‘examples’ of former SNM members who cooperated with the government. … Similarly, SNM members in good standing who fail to assault or kill SNM informants are being targeted for violence by the SNM and the Sureños.

Meanwhile, SNM members incarcerated in the federal system have been discussing reorganizing the gang, imposing new rules, such as requiring two “carnales” or SNM members to be present anytime they speak with prison or jail staff to ensure no one is telling on the gang.

US law Enforcement is doing their part in battling the epidemic of Fentanyl being flooded in the US. They are constantly taking down operations of mid-level trafficking organizations and smaller street drug dealers. But how about the source? Where are these gang criminal organizations getting all their drug supply? The answer, Mexican cartels. 

Many of these mid-level criminal organization who are trafficking in drugs supplied by Mexican cartels in the US are mainly the street gangs.  They broker large purchases of drugs from Mexican cartels to distribute in US streets. Remember, the Mexican drug cartel deal in wholesale, they traffic the lethal Fentanyl to the US in kilos. The cartels use the already established infrastructure of the street gangs to sell their product. While US authorities target organizations in the US, the Mexican cartels remain for the most part safe in Mexico. It is harder to reach the cartels in their own turf, especially with their ability to corrupt Mexican officials. 

Mexican cartels have the same level of organization and power in the US as they do in Mexico, minus the level of corruption and violence. It is in their best interest to avoid the violence as much as possible to avoid attracting attention. This will disrupt their operation and hurt their drug business enterprise. They tend to work under the radar, hardly being detected. Most of the Mexican operatives that get caught are the lower-level operatives, like the mules who transport the drugs for the cartels, or trusted operatives who coordinate drug trafficking in transport or in safe houses. The big hitters remain in Mexico, who coordinate all of their operations from abroad.

Mexican plaza bosses will punish their own people who dare to “calentar la plaza,” or disrupt their operation by a means of violence. This is very common in Mexico and they are certainly very careful to ensure it does not happen in the US. That is why violence directly tied to the Mexican cartels in the US does not happen often. The Mexican operatives tend to follow the rule of their drug lords. In Mexico, sometimes renegade cells working for a cartel lose control and increase violence in their turfs, but usually it’s the plaza bosses waging war against rival cartels. 

Many times, these cells start working independently and do their own thing.  We started to see this happen more often after the fall of the Guadalajara cartel when cartels broke up in different factions. We also saw this happen after the fall of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán with the Sinaloa cartel. The organization fell into three factions; one of Ismael El Mayo Zambada, Los Chapitos and that of Rafael Caro Quintero who did not get along. This increased the violence, after internal fighting in the state of Sonora, a Sinaloa strong hold. 

When it comes to US street gangs, they usually will resort to violence when cornered or to retaliate against other people. An example of this was the “cartel-style” massacre in Central, California that shocked America. Six people were executed in a home invasion, including a young mother and her 10-month-old son. The two shooters were described as members of the Norteños, a Northern California gang, while two of the victims were well-known, validated members of the Sureños.  News media reported that the suspects and members of the victims’ family had a long history of gang violence and drug trafficking.

The dynamics are very different in how the Mexican cartels operate in Mexico versus the US. Mexican cartels supply the illicit drugs to street gangs in the US, who are always willing to make a good profit. But the US often plays a small role in hitting the actual cartels to slow them down in the US. That is why it is very difficult to stop the drug flow from Mexico. 

The U.S. is limited in what they can do in Mexico, especially with the current Mexican government of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) who was elected with the slogan campaign of “abrazos no balasos,” or “hugs no bullets.” AMLO has set restriction on how the US sets up operation in Mexico, limiting DEA operations. US will still attempt to eradicate the flow of illicit drugs, but to really stop it, or slow it down significantly, it must be shut it off at the faucet, the source.

Sources: KOAT Channel 4, KRQE Channel 13, Albuquerque Journal, FBI, DEA,