GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado - At least one of the men being held for immigration violations after a Strawberry Days weekend law enforcement operation is allegedly a "self-admitted" member of the Mexican-American street gang known as the Surenos, according to the Garfield County Sheriff's Office.
David Centeno, 25, was arrested June 18 at the Strawberry Days carnival at the Glenwood Springs Mall as part of a joint "gang enforcement operation" between the sheriff's office, the Glenwood Springs Police Department and local U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials.
Centeno appeared in Garfield County District Court on Wednesday to answer to the only local charges resulting from the arrest.
Those charges include possession of a false identification card, a class 6 felony; resisting arrest, a misdemeanor; and possession of a small amount of marijuana and paraphernalia, both petty offenses. Centeno was also wanted on a warrant for failure to appear on an invalid driver's license charge.
The more serious federal felony charge of illegally re-entering the United States after being deported on multiple occasions over the last six years will be prosecuted in federal court. Centeno remains in the Garfield County Jail on an ICE hold.
Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario said Centeno was contacted as part of local law enforcement's cooperation with ICE's Operation Community Shield Gang Task Force.
"The mission is to identify gang members and prosecute them either locally or federally," Vallario explained in an email reply to questions about the incident posed by the Post Independent.
The operation has been criticized by some, including the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition (CIRC), for going after suspects in a public setting in front of their children and families, in apparent violation of ICE policies.
Vallario said anyone at the carnival who was wearing gang-related clothing, such as bandanas or certain sports jerseys, was approached and asked to remove them. In Centeno's case, authorities knew him to be a prior deportee and likely in the country illegally, he said.
His gang ties are also well known, Vallario said, relaying information obtained from deputies at the scene.
"Mr. Centeno's gang involvement was quite active when he was here previously," Vallario said. "We believed he was out of the country until officers made contact with him" at the carnival.
"Centeno is a self-admitted Sureno and was wearing gang-related clothing and flying a blue bandana at the time of the contact," the sheriff said.
Vallario emphasized that being a gang member is not illegal. "Committing crimes because of your gang affiliation is," he said.
Centeno has had previous run-ins with the law, both in Garfield and Mesa counties, Vallario said. Past arrests included felony possession of a weapon on school grounds when Centeno was a teenager, as well as criminal impersonation, also a felony, according to criminal records released by the sheriff's office.
Records also indicate Centeno had been deported in 2005, twice in 2006 and again in 2008.
The same evening Centeno was arrested, authorities also contacted brothers Julio and Cesar Alvarez-Cortez.
Vallario said Julio Alvarez-Cortez was wearing gang-related clothing, and deputies asked to speak with both of them in private outside of the carnival.
"Once there, [officers] explained the reason for the contact, and at this time the brothers both produced fake IDs that did not check out," Vallario said.
Julio Alvarez-Cortez was ultimately arrested on information from ICE that he had been deported in 2001. His brother, Cesar, was let go on a summons when police determined that he is a single father with no prior deportations and had an expired work authorization card.
Brendan Greene, CIRC's Rocky Mountain coordinator, has questioned whether ICE and local law enforcement violated policies in carrying out the operation at the Strawberry Days carnival.
"This operation has revealed the Glenwood Springs ICE office to be a rogue agency operating outside of clear ICE directives to not conduct operations in 'sensitive locations,'" Greene said in a press release issued June 22.
"The fact that ICE and local police went after dads at the carnival on Father's Day weekend has been spreading throughout the immigrant community," he added. "This has the potential to negatively impact the success of Strawberry Days for years to come; not to mention erode what little trust remains between the immigrant community and the Garfield County Sheriff's Office."
Local immigration attorney Ted Hess told CIRC he has similar concerns.
"I can't think of a better way to ruin community policing than having local law enforcement troll for undocumented workers at community events like Strawberry Days." Hess said in the CIRC press release. "This unholy alliance of ICE and local cops destroys trust between the community and the police."