Justice for Relatives

Initiatives to solve cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people take shape in New Mexico

By: - Thursday May 5, 2022 11:37 am

Justice for Relatives

Initiatives to solve cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people take shape in New Mexico

By: - 11:37 am

Families searching for missing relatives gathered outside the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, N.M. on Feb. 24, 2022. (Photo by Sharon Chischilly for Source NM)

Families searching for missing relatives gathered outside the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, N.M. on Feb. 24, 2022. (Photo by Sharon Chischilly for Source NM)

Geraldine Toya has two reasons to be hopeful.

First, she’s in the process of requesting that the Albuquerque Police Department reopen the case involving her daughter Shawna’s death.

“I feel relief that something is getting done, you know; we’re wanting to still look for justice, answers,” she said.

Second, Toya (Jemez) was in attendance on Feb. 24, 2022 for the signing of legislation that will be a first step to addressing issues of missing and murdered Indigenous people in New Mexico.

“Today’s the day that we are going to make history,” she said at the bill signing event. “We’ve been searching for this moment, to get through with what we need, we deserve it. And we’re gonna actually see it and observe it for ourselves. So it’s big, it’s a big opening for us.”

That day, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed two bills into law that are the first step in addressing the systemic issues that contribute to the MMIWR crises. The first will establish a Missing In New Mexico Day, where families like the Toya’s can share information about their case with law enforcement. The second bill will give the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office more authority to coordinate these cases between agencies and pay for investigators to work these cases exclusively.

Rose Yazzie approaches Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (right) after the signing ceremony for legislation on missing and murdered Indigenous women Thursday at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. (Photo by Sharon Chischilly for Source NM)

Toya’s experience is far too common. First, she’s taking the initiative and demanding answers on her own dime. She pays for flyers, gas to visit Albuquerque and anything else required to keep her daughter’s case in front of the people that can help out one day.

A group of advocates is working with Toya and others to try to help where they can, but they are often flooded with calls from families with questions and concerns about how police and legal systems have failed their relative who was killed or has gone missing.

Many of these advocates also take part in the New Mexico MMIWR Task Force, which was established in 2019 to evaluate need and address these issues. The two bills signed into law were among their many recommendations. As federal dollars reach communities trying to find their relatives, the task force has become a model for other states beginning their own reform process.

The federal government is investing millions of dollars into communities to help with local police grants and victim services. The goal is to help people from the moment they file a police report, through their court proceedings and into counseling as they recover.

As part of the national effort, the FBI is increasing rewards for cold cases involving crimes against Native Americans. And the Violence Against Women Act was recently renewed with language that allows tribal courts to prosecute non-tribal residents for crimes committed within the tribe’s jurisdiction.

But the work is far from done.

Below are a series of stories that show the problems identified by families, community members, advocates, law enforcement and politicians. There is a path forward, and some progress is being made by everyone involved. But it takes time and serious accountability to make a dent in a problem that is rooted in the very foundation of the United States.

What the numbers say

Available data shows the grim reality of a system with repeated failures. According to the task force:

  • New Mexico has the highest rate of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women cases in the country.
  • Native American women have the highest rate of death by homicide among all racial groups in New Mexico.
  • Native American women make up 16% of all unsolved missing persons cases between 2014 and 2019.
  • Two cities, Albuquerque and Gallup, are in the top 10 in the United States for MMIW cases.
  • Between 2014 and 2019, Albuquerque reported 660 cases of missing Native Americans, and 287 of those cases involve women.
  • In Gallup during the same time period, women accounted for 53% of the 675 missing-persons cases involving Native Americans.
  • In the Four Corners, Farmington reports 66% of its missing-persons cases involve Indigenous women.
  • Statewide, 506 MMIW cases are active in New Mexico. More than half, 280, are murder cases.
  • The average age of the victims is 29.
  • About 79.5% of criminal investigations opened by the FBI were referred to prosecution and 21% of those cases were closed because they did not meet prosecution guidelines, the U.S. Department of Justice Indian Country Investigations and Prosecutions Report noted in 2017. The cases were thrown out due to lack of evidence that a crime was committed, and because the deaths being investigated were considered to be the result of an “accident, suicide, or natural causes.”

RESOURCES

New Mexico Crisis and Access Line: 1-855-NMCRISIS (662-7474)

24 hours a day, 7 days a week

TTY 1-855-227-5485

New Mexico Peer-to-Peer Warmline: 1-855-4NM-7100 (466-7100)

Call 7 a.m.–11:30 p.m.  |  Text 6 p.m.–11 p.m. every day

Language services always available

StrongHearts Native Helpline: 1-844-7NATIVE (1-844-762-8483)

Rape Crisis Center of Central N.M. 24- Hour Crisis Hotline: (505-266-7711)

The Life Link 24-Hour Crisis Response Line: 1-505-GET-FREE (1-505-438-3733)

You can also text “HELP” or “INFO” to BEFREE (“233733”)

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Shaun Griswold
Shaun Griswold

Shaun Griswold is a journalist in Albuquerque. He is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, and his ancestry also includes Jemez and Zuni on the maternal side of his family. He grew up in Albuquerque and Gallup. He brings a decade of print and broadcast news experience. Most recently he covered Indigenous affairs with New Mexico In Depth. Shaun reports on issues important to Native Americans in urban and tribal communities throughout the state, including education and child welfare.

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