The federal government has prosecutorial jurisdiction over major crimes committed on the state’s Indian reservations, which means the U.S. attorney’s office — working alongside local and tribal law enforcement and the FBI — is in some ways the last line of defense in Indian Country. The work is done from the office’s Indian Country Crime Section, headquartered in Albuquerque.
“We’re out there all the time getting to know those communities, and I do think that that’s a very important part of our relationship,” U.S. Attorney for New Mexico John C. Anderson said while visiting the Roswell Daily Record office on April 27. “Yes, it’s prosecuting cases, but it’s also about just being out there and getting to know our partners and our residents in those communities. So, I’m proud of the work that section’s doing. I’m very proud of the work.”
It’s an aspect of the office’s mission that might not spring to mind immediately when New Mexicans stop to consider what the U.S. attorney does. But Anderson, a Santa Fe attorney nominated by the president in November and confirmed as U.S. attorney in February, was quick to mention it as an area of focus for the office and its staff. Anderson, among other high-profile officers of the court, was in Roswell for events related to Law Day, speaking at a Law Day event at the Hi-Q the evening of April 26.
He talked about the traditions of the local legal community, he said, but also about the role his office plays. Anderson touched again on the some of those points while at the RDR.
Not surprisingly, given that Anderson’s the federal government’s top prosecutor in New Mexico, he discussed efforts to combat violent crime. New Mexico’s violent crime rate is higher than the national average and the attorney general, Anderson said, is focused on a push to address that.
“We do find that much of the violent crime is driven by a very small percentage of people,” he said.
The level of poverty in the state contributes to the violent crime rate, Anderson believes, and there are weaknesses in the criminal justice system he’d like to see shorn up. Ultimately, it’s not the goal or intention of his office to step on what partners at the local and state levels are doing, but to use tools in the federal toolbox to be a “force multiplier.”
Among those tools are ways of pursuing crimes involving firearms — felon-in-possession cases, for instance — and instruments like the Hobbs Act, which allows for prosecution of crimes, like robberies, that can be shown to affect interstate commerce. “All we need to do is establish an interstate nexus, which is pretty easy to do because commerce these days is getting your goods from somewhere else, or you’re selling to folks who are from another state,” he said. “That’s a fairly easy test to meet.”
It’ll come as a surprise to no one who follows current events that immigration is a priority for the Justice Department. “We’re doing a huge volume of immigration cases,” Anderson said. “I think we’re doing upwards of 7,000 probably, this calendar year.” That’s a lot of volume for an office in Las Cruces that has 20 prosecutors, including supervisors.
More than half of the cases are misdemeanors. On those and on felony immigration cases, Anderson’s office works alongside Border Patrol and Homeland Security officials.
Working with other agencies, especially at the local and state levels, is a focus not only of the work, but of the discussion about the work when Anderson’s in Roswell or elsewhere in New Mexico.
Whether in the areas of violent crime or immigration — or combatting opioid abuse, which is also a priority, he seeks to make clear that his office is focused on working with law enforcement to address problems statewide.
“We’re not just Albuquerque and Las Cruces, and we want to partner with your local government, your local law enforcement to make this community a healthier and safer place,” Anderson said.
When it comes to tools in the toolbox, partnerships like those might just be the most important — and effective.
John Dilmore is editor of the Roswell Daily Record. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.