Pierre Benally
Pierre Benally
FARMINGTON — New Mexico State Police said an enforcement project aimed at reducing drunken driving crashes on U.S. Highway 550 south of Bloomfield is having success.

Project 550 started after local law enforcement agencies investigated six fatal crashes on U.S. Highway 550 south of Bloomfield from November 2011 through New Year's Day 2012.

The project, which started in January 2012, uses federal funds to pay for additional state police officers on patrol an 80-mile stretch of the highway from Cuba to Bloomfield.

The agency announced Monday that an officer working a shift as part of the project last week arrested two drivers who were allegedly driving stolen cars.

One of the suspects was also allegedly driving while intoxicated and the other is accused of ferrying a felony amount of marijuana.

The project has also led to a decrease in fatal crashes on the highway since it was created one year ago, according to a state police news release.

In 2013, there has been one fatal crash on U.S. Highway 550. Claudia Lemus, 29, was killed on Feb. 22 when she rolled her vehicle while making a gradual turn 35 miles south of Bloomfield, according to the San Juan County Sheriff's Office.

State police said the project has had a positive effect on U.S. Highway 550.

"I definitely believe presence is a huge factor," State Police Sgt. Ron Foreman said. "As motorists see that presence and word gets out, people slow down and don't do things they shouldn't be doing."

The goal of Project 550 is to curb drunken driving by putting additional grant-funded police officers on the highway to patrol for traffic violations.

The officers are on the lookout for crimes ranging from DWIs to seat belt violations, New Mexico State Police Sgt. Emmanuel T. Gutierrez said in a news release.
Victor Gonzales
Victor Gonzales

State police officers from Farmington and the greater Albuquerque area can sign up to patrol the highway in addition to their regular shifts, Foreman said.

The program is scheduled to continue through September.

On May 14, Foreman was patrolling U.S. Highway 550 as part of Project 550.

He arrested Victor Gonzales, a 34-year-old Albuquerque man, on suspicion of driving a stolen vehicle near mile post 116, about 35 miles south of Bloomfield.

Foreman also allegedly found marijuana, scales and packaging materials in the car Gonzales was driving.

Gonzales was arrested for suspicion of unlawful taking of a motor vehicle and possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. The Albuquerque Police Department was searching for the missing vehicle he was allegedly driving.

On May 15, Foreman, still on an additional shift at part of Project 550, stopped Pierre Benally, a 28-year-old Waterflow man, near mile post 139, about 12 miles south of Bloomfield. Benally was driving a vehicle that had been reported missing in Farmington.

He was arrested for suspicion of unlawful taking of a motor vehicle and aggravated DWI.

Ryan Boetel can be reached at rboetel@daily-times.com; 505-564-4644. Follow him on Twitter @rboetel.