Officials with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations announced Wednesday that members and associates affiliated with the South Side Locos and Brown Pride gangs in Albuquerque, southern New Mexico and the Four Corners region were in federal custody following a quick probe of the area.
Authorities also seized heroin, cocaine and meth with a street value of close to $300,000. In addition, federal agents and local authorities seized more than a dozen or so illegal firearms and two expensive vehicles.
"This was a coordinated effort that resulted in the arrests of a number of high ranking gang members," said Dennis Ulrich, Homeland Security investigations acting special agent in charge of West Texas and New Mexico. "We believe they were involved in drug trafficking and human smuggling."
The roundup was part of a national operation known as "Project Nefarious" that nabbed more than 600 gang members with outstanding warrants across the country.
The arrests also come after law enforcement agencies around New Mexico have asked federal officials to assist cash-strapped departments in battling gangs, drug trafficking and weapons violations.
But as federal authorities have moved into places like Roswell and Las Cruces, violent drug cartels have increased their presence in the remote area of northwest New Mexico that borders Arizona, Utah and Colorado.
"Not only do we welcome (the federal presence), we're asking for it," said San Juan County Sheriff Ken Christesen, whose territory includes the areas in the Four Corners bordering the large Navajo Nation.
Because the Navajo Nation is so isolated and large, Christesen said the area is a popular route from Phoenix for drug traffickers and human smugglers who use the reservation's many remote roads to distribute throughout the region. "It shouldn't be left to the local law enforcement agencies to fight a national problem," Christesen said.
According to Ulrich, most of those arrested in New Mexico were living near Farmington. Five of the 28 arrested were women linked to the gangs, Ulrich said.
Federal authorities said that by getting involved and charging criminals in federal court, they can increase the amount of prison time.
In recent months, Homeland Security agents assisted local law enforcement agencies in more than 20 criminal investigations that will be prosecuted by U.S. attorneys, said Ulrich.
The federal government can seize criminals' money and possessions when they are convicted.
Since 2009, Homeland Security Investigations has added around 60 new agents to New Mexico and helped formed a number of joint task forces and multiagency groups aimed at tackling rural gangs, political corruption, drug and gun trafficking, child pornography, and human smuggling.
The beefed-up presence has resulted in a string of recent high-profile arrests, federal officials said. In March, for example, the mayor of the border town of Columbus and its police chief were among those arrested in a drug and weapons raid following a federal investigation into firearms smuggling from the U.S. to Mexico. The mayor and police chief later pleaded guilty to federal charges.