Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke announces a drug bust on the homelands of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian in North Carolina on September 27, 2018. "The message is clear: Indian Country is off limits to opioids," a post on Twitter read. Photo: Secretary Zinke

'Fake News!': Tribe swept up in Trump administration's law and order push

The Trump administration is more than happy to promote drug busts in Indian Country but one tribe is striking back after being swept up in Washington's law and order fervor.

A September 12 press release boasted of "more than 17 pounds of deadly drugs" being taken "off the streets" by a Bureau of Indian Affairs police officer. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke touted the bust with a post on Twitter which claimed that "17lbs of heroin" were seized by the hard-working public servant.

Except Zinke wasn't entirely accurate with his assessment. According to court documents posted by Indianz.Com, the officer indeed seized about 17 pounds of drugs but only 1.25 pounds were heroin.

The remaining 15.9 pounds seized by the BIA officer were methamphetamine, an equally devastating drug. But with the Trump administration keen to position itself as a leader in the fight against opioids, the "heroin" angle made for bigger news and in fact one outlet in Washington repeated Zinke's claim that "17 pounds of heroin" were seized on a reservation in New Mexico.

The unwanted attention has leaders of the Pueblo of San Felipe, where the incident occurred on August 29, miffed.

"To quote President Trump, 'Fake News!' one tribal official told Indianz.Com.

In a letter to Zinke, San Felipe Governor Anthony Ortiz was more diplomatic but just as concerned. He called on the Cabinet official to retract the "inaccurate and damaging press release" about the drug seizure, saying it left out key information about the nature of the bust, including the identity of the non-Indian defendant who has been charged in connection with a traffic stop not far from New Mexico's most populous city.

"We are especially offended at the bad light that your press release casts on our beautifully and culturally vibrant community and law abiding tribal members," Ortiz wrote on September 25.

"Although our community is not immune to the problems of substance abuse addiction plaguing the rest of society, it is our Pueblo values and heritage that gives our tribal members the desire and resiliency to combat these detrimental addictions," the governor added.

But if the tribe is looking to Washington for an apology, it won't be coming any time soon. In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of the Interior said the press release will stand because nothing in it was misleading or factually wrong.

"We have read the Governor's complaints and generally sympathize with him about the issue of misleading media coverage on any number of topics," the spokesperson told Indianz.Com "However, as he stated in his letter, there is nothing for the Department to correct because there is no factually inaccurate information. As the governor again points out, the press release did not suggest the individual was a Tribal member, nor did it suggest that it was in a Tribal village."

"The Department is extremely proud of our law enforcement officers and believe they deserve public recognition," the statement concluded.

Governor Anthony Ortiz of the Pueblo of San Felipe welcomes Secretary Ben Carson, a member of President Donald Trump's Cabinet, to his tribe's homelands in New Mexico on July 31, 2018. Photo: U.S. Department of of Housing and Urban Development

But the press release, along with Zinke's post on Twitter, present an incomplete portrait of just about every aspect of the traffic stop, which was conducted by Nicholas A. Jackson, an officer with the BIA's K-9 unit. The release asserted that the bust was consisted with the Trump administration's "priority to end the opioid crisis and stop drugs pouring over the border."

"The President's Initiative is directly impacting the families within our tribal communities," Tara Sweeney, the recently-installed Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, said in the release in which Secretary Zinke thanked "President Trump for his great leadership" in addressing the opioid epidemic.

While New Mexico is a border state, nothing in officer Jackson's court-filed affidavit indicates the bust had anything to do with border trafficking. Instead, all signs point to the defendant, Roberto Harris-Valencia, who was not named by Interior in the release, bringing the drugs from Arizona in order to take them to Colorado.

Harris-Valencia was transporting the drugs in a car he registered in Arizona two days prior and he was driving with an Arizona's license, the affidavit stated. He was heading north on Interstate 25, a heavily-trafficked highway that runs through the San Felipe, which is the most logical way to get from New Mexico to Colorado, after leaving Arizona.

Nowhere in officer Jackson's affidavit does it indicate that Harris-Valencia is from anywhere else besides the United States. Nothing in the court record so far indicates he is a foreign national either.

And even though Harris-Valencia admitted to carrying a large amount of drugs, he also told officer Jackson that he felt like he was being forced to take the meth and heroin to Colorado or else "he and his family would be harmed."

"Harris stated that this was his first attempt at trafficking narcotics and United Stated [sic] currency," the affidavit read.

Interstate 25, a heavily-trafficked highway, runs through the Pueblo of San Felipe in New Mexico. Northbound traffic can be seen on the left. Photo: Nicholas Eckhart

But Interior didn't just omit key information about Harris-Valencia, it also relayed misleading information about his legal status. "On Thursday, August 30, 2018, a Criminal Complaint was filed in the District of New Mexico and the suspect was held for further court proceedings," it stated.

Harris-Valencia, however, is not even being held behind bars while he awaits trial for possession with intent to distribute 500 grams or more of methamphetamine and for possession with intent to distribute 100 grams or more of heroin He had already been released to a halfway house on September 4 -- a week prior to the release and Zinke's tweet.

The La Pasada Halfway House is a residential center in Albuquerque that houses federal defendants who are in various stage of the justice system. Though Harris-Valencia can't leave the surrounding county without federal approval, his presence there indicates the court does not see him as a threat or a danger to anyone in society, much less to San Felipe, about 30 miles north.

"Opioids have had a disproportionately negative effect on American Indian and Alaska Native communities," Zinke had said in the press release.

Harris-Valencia, who pleaded not guilty to the charges on September 19, is due to go to trial next month, with jury selection scheduled to start on November 13, according to a court notice. While he awaits his fate, he has been ordered to participate in substance abuse therapy or counseling, if deemed necessary.

He otherwise is not subject to any curfews or restrictions on his residency at the halfway house. So long as he stays in Bernalillo County, the most populous in the county, and regularly reports to his supervising court officer, he is free to come and go as he pleases.

La Pasada, according to the New Mexico Department of Corrections, provides "healthy living and life skills classes" for offenders. If Harris-Valencia isn't disabled, he "must be able to work" while living at the center.

The Pueblo of San Felipe is located in neighboring Sandoval County so the tribe has no worry of Harris-Valencia showing up there any time soon, especially if he ends up being convicted. After all, all signs point to him merely passing through the reservation on his way to his apparent destination somewhere in Colorado.

After leaving San Felipe, motorists travel through the homelands of Kewa Pueblo and Cochiti Pueblo before reaching Santa Fe, the state capital. This stretch of Interstate 25 sees about 38,400 vehicles on an average day, according to New Mexico Department of Transportation data.

And while Secretary Zinke has traveled to New Mexico numerous times to meet with tribal leaders, he has not been to San Felipe. Despite the tribe's concerns about the press release, Governor Ortiz welcomes him for a visit to his "beautiful and culturally vibrant tribal community," home to about 3,000 people, to discuss priorities such as law enforcement and treatment centers for those struggling with addiction.

"An expression of your interest in our efforts and direction communication with the Pueblo, together with prompt correction of your grossly misleading press release would, we believe, be an excellent exercise of the federal government's proper government-to-government relationship with the Pueblo of San Felipe," Ortiz wrote.

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