*Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to clarify that Omar Manzanilla was released two days ahead of his previously scheduled release date and that Lujan Grisham has since rescinded the executive order to release prisoners early.
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) — Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark Ronchetti’s latest ad highlights a federal drug bust as a key example of New Mexico crime. He broadly connects the drugs and suspects named in the bust to policies of his Democratic opponent, Michelle Lujan Grisham.
So what’s the story behind the drug bust mentioned in the ad? And how is it connected to Lujan Grisham’s actions as Governor? To give you the context you need, KRQE News 13 is looking into the gubernatorial candidates’ political advertisements over the next several months in the run-up to Election Day to help voters get the full story.
Ronchetti’s ad points to recent news about an Albuquerque fentanyl bust as an example of crime in the community. According to the FBI, the bust happened September 1, 2022 and was part of an ongoing, years-long operation to dismantle the Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico (SNM) prison gang. On September 13, the Federal Bureau of Investigation released a video where the the Bureau’s director described the bust as “the largest takedown of fentanyl ever for the FBI.”
The ad goes on to tie that bust to New Mexico’s laws. “The gang told the FBI they’re in New Mexico because of our weak laws,” the ad says.
That statement comes from a detailed application an FBI agent sent to get permission to search more than a dozen locations throughout Albuquerque. In the warrant application, the FBI agent wrote that a confidential informant told the FBI that “a lot of California Sureños [gang members associated in some way with Mexico] 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 search warrant doesn’t specifically state that “the gang told the FBI they’re in New Mexico because of [the state’s] weak laws.” However, a statement within the search warrant implies that New Mexico is easier to live in, according to a confidential informant, referring to California’s “tougher laws” by comparison.
Ronchetti’s ad goes on to note that the prison population is “down 20% since [Lujan Grisham] took office.” The ad states its source for the data is the New Mexico Sentencing Commissioner.
Lujan Grisham entered the Governor’s office at the beginning of 2019. It is true that the number of people in prison in New Mexico decreased since the start of 2019. But it’s not just New Mexico prisons — across the nation, prison populations have decreased, according to data from the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) and the New Mexico Sentencing Commission.
From the start of 2019 to the end of 2020 (the latest available data), the total adult prison population of the U.S. dropped by about 20%, data from the DOJ shows. And charts from the state’s Sentencing Commission also show a similar drop in New Mexico’s numbers.
But, the numbers didn’t just start going down when Lujan Grisham took office. The state’s prison population had already been on the decline since the end of 2017, during Republican Susana Martinez’s time as Governor.
So what’s behind the declining prison population? KRQE News 13 previously reported that many factors, including criminal justice reform, increased prison diversion programs, and changes in how criminals are sentenced may be behind the declining numbers. Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic also had an impact as criminal prosecutions were put on hold as the virus spread.
Connected to the topic of prison populations, Ronchetti’s ad also says that Lujan Grisham “personally ordered the early release of hundreds of dangerous criminals.” What’s the announcer referring to? An executive order from the Governor in 2020 to release some prison inmates early with the goal of curbing the spread of COVID-19.
In April 2020, Lujan Grisham used one of her powers as Governor to provide “commutation” of some prison sentences. That means the state’s governor can order the early release or the reduction of a prisoner’s sentence, but that prisoner’s full rights aren’t restored.
On April 6, 2020, roughly 15 days into the “stay at home” order, Governor Lujan Grisham signed executive order 2020-021. The order describes COVID-19 as a public health emergency and speaks of preventing the spread of the virus through social distancing measures, to include the early release of incarcerated individuals who are “near their release date” and “meet certain criteria.”
KRQE News 13 previously reported that the Governor set some criteria for those prisoners who were eligible for early release: They had to have a scheduled release date no more than 30 days away (i.e. they had to serve most of their sentence), a parole plan in place, and the individual could not be a sex offender, convicted of a felony DWI, and not serving time for domestic abuse, assault on a peace officer, or a firearms enhancement.
As of July 2022, 688 inmates have been let out early under the executive order. Previously, Eric Harrison, a spokesperson for the Corrections Department said that “the state isn’t letting just anyone walk free” and that each person released had an individual release plan that included meeting with parole officers so that “the community stays safe and that offenders, that individual, is able to reintegrate back into society to be our neighbors.”
Of the more than 600 inmates released, it is hard to qualify who would be considered a “dangerous criminal.” In the context of the advertisement, the word “dangerous” isn’t defined in respect to the “hundreds of criminals” mentioned.
After Ronchetti’s ad aired, Lujan Grisham issued a new executive order cancelling the early release of prisoners. The new order notes that the COVID-19 related issues driving the original early release of prisoners have subsided.
As Ronchetti notes in his ad, one of those released was involved in the FBI’s big Albuquerque fentanyl bust in September 2022. On screen, viewers see a 2020 jailhouse photo of a man named Omar Manzanilla next to a caption describing him as a gang member “busted by the FBI.”
Manzanilla, whose record includes charges of felony possession of controlled substances, fraudulent uses of credit cards, and receiving or transporting stolen vehicles, was listed in the FBI agent’s request for a search warrant as a “target subject.” The FBI suspected him of being involved in sending drugs into New Mexico prisons.
Under Lujan Grisham’s executive order, Manzanilla was eligible for early release because he was serving a sentence for what are generally considered nonviolent offenses. On June 11, 2020, Manzanilla was released on parole, just two days earlier than his previously scheduled release date.
A little over two months later, he was charged with new crimes, including several counts of aggravated assault, multiple counts of battery, the abuse of a child, and possession of a firearm, according to a criminal complaint filed in the New Mexico court system.
And confidential informants reportedly told the FBI that Manzanilla was acting as an armed guard for a suspected drug dealer. As of September 27, Manzanilla is still facing state charges. The New Mexico Department of Corrections confirmed with KRQE News 13 that he is not in state custody and that there’s a warrant out for his arrest.
A search of the federal court records system (PACER) indicates no new charges have been filed against Manzanilla, despite the allegations levied against him in the recent search warrant application.
Editor’s Note: KRQE News 13 fact checking and contextualizing television ads used in the 2022 race for New Mexico’s Governor’s office. Ads reviewed are ads from the candidates, not from political action committees. The review period consists of ads either released, or running between September 5, 2022 and the November election. For more KRQE News 13 Fact Check articles, visit KRQE.com/elections