No. 4 news story of 2011: Strawberry Days gang operation sparked controversy |

No. 4 news story of 2011: Strawberry Days gang operation sparked controversy

An inter-agency police crackdown on suspected gang activity at the Strawberry Days carnival in June that involved local law enforcement and federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents set off a firestorm of criticism from immigrant rights activists.

During the June 18 operation in West Glenwood, three Hispanic men were arrested on incidental charges, and ultimately detained for immigration violations, after being contacted for allegedly displaying gang colors.

The Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition (CIRC) called the operation, carried out under ICE’s Operation Community Shield Gang Task Force, a de facto immigration sweep. It also appeared to violate ICE’s own policies to not conduct enforcement operations in public settings where children and other family members may be present, the organization charged.

Police officials, including Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario, defended the action as a necessary preventative measure against possible gang activity. At least one of the men who was arrested had known gang ties and a lengthy criminal record, according to police.

However, the family of one of the other men who was detained that day, Julio Alvarez-Cortez, filed a federal lawsuit in September claiming his constitutional rights were violated. Named as defendants in the lawsuit were Sheriff Vallario, local ICE agents Steve Turza and Chris Carter, three Garfield County sheriff’s deputies and Carbondale Police Officer Alvaro Agon.

At the same time, CIRC, in conjunction with one of its local student advocacy groups, Association of Students United in Action, had been questioning the police activities of Carbondale’s officer Agon.

The groups alleged that Agon had been using his role as the local school resource officer to identify families for possible immigration violations and turn them over to ICE.

That so-called double duty as a school resource officer and ICE liaison creates a conflict of interest and a breach of trust with students, the groups charged.

Again, area police chiefs defended the cross-over work between school officers and ICE’s gang task force, which was also being done in Glenwood Springs and Basalt, as necessary to curb potential gang infiltration in schools.

“Nothing in their work is aimed at immigration,” Glenwood Springs Police Chief Terry Wilson said in an Oct. 10 press conference. “That is way outside the scope of this program.”

CIRC and the student group took their concerns to the Roaring Fork School District Re-1, requesting a policy from the school board prohibiting school resource officers, which the district partially funds, from working directly with ICE. The school board asked the group to research policies in other school districts and confer with local police chiefs, and report back before it could consider any action.

Officer Agon, meanwhile, filed a defamation of character lawsuit against CIRC and its representatives.

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