The state Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives Task Force on Wednesday released what members described as an "initial" 64-page report examining one of New Mexico's long standing crises: the dearth of information about Native people who disappear or are murdered here.
New Mexico lawmakers signed the MMIWR task force into existence in March 2019, giving it a November deadline to produce a report to the state.
With the first report wrapped, members now hope additional reports will come as advocates work with lawmakers to provide more money for the effort to document Native deaths and disappearances and maybe even create a permanent position in the government to oversee MMIWR work.
The MMIWR crisis goes well beyond legislative work, according to the Urban Indian Health Institute, which tried to track missing and murdered Indigenous women as far back as 1900; New Mexico has the highest number of such cases in the country. However, the group's data is outdated and is not comprehensive.
Assembling current data was among the task force's goals—but it has not been easy. The task force's staff attempted to gather data from state law enforcement agencies with state Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA) and US Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests seeking information by race and ethnicity on missing persons, homicides, suspicious deaths and deaths in custody in New Mexico and within local law enforcement. In particular, the task force focused on New Mexico counties with tribal lands and/or counties that had a population with greater than 4% of people who identified as Native.
But of the 23 law enforcement agencies the task force queried, only 11 sent cases with race and sex included and the researchers were only able to analyze data from three police departments and two sheriff's departments, the report released Wednesday says.
The Santa Fe Police Department responded to the request but told the task force it was unable to provide all the information because it was "overly broad and burdensome," a common response to IPRA requests. The Santa Fe County Sheriff's Offices did send cases numbers for missing persons and homicides, including their race and sex, according to the report.
In the report, researchers analyzed McKinley and San Juan counties because their police departments supplied the most detailed data: Across these two counties, 52% of the missing persons cases were Native people, and 46% were white. The report also found that in these two counties, Native women are more likely to be missing than men when compared with any other race.
Only three police departments provided enough data for the task force to analyze: Farmington, Gallup and Albuquerque police departments. From 2014 to 2019, 48% of missing persons cases in Gallup were Native, 76% in Gallup and 11% in Albuquerque.
Homicide data from the departments was just as limited: In Farmington, from 2014 to 2019, Native Americans represented 43% of the solved homicide cases (14 of 17). All three of the active homicide cases are Native males.
The Gallup Police Department data said that from 2014 to 2019, there were 15 homicide cases and of those, 13 were Native American.
The Albuquerque Police Department only provided homicide data for 2018 and 2019: Nine Native Americans who were murdered over this time period in solved cases; eight were men. There were five unsolved murder cases between 2018 and 2019 and four of those cases involved male victims.
The basic data findings, introduced during an afternoon Zoom meeting, are thin because of the lack of detailed ethnicity and race data collection across state agencies. It is impossible to know exactly how many MMIWR there are in New Mexico and the pervasiveness of the problem. Data from the Office of the Medical Investigator is also marked as "incomplete" in the task force's report.
Just from analyzing what numbers they could acquire, task force partners from the University of New Mexico say the numbers of MMIWR are worse than previous research has concluded.
"One of the major findings: We do not have an exact number," says Carmela Roybal, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at UNM. She assisted the task force in data collection and added: "We did find that in the data we do have numbers that are much higher than was ever expected."
During the virtual task force meeting on Wednesday evening, members admitted there were significant hurdles. The coronavirus pandemic, along with unresponsive state agencies (including the Office of the Medical Investigator) and a lack of funding in tribal communities for this type of data collection and even case investigation, stopped the task force from completing its work within the year.
Indian Affairs Department Secretary Lynn Trujillo, who chaired the task force, said during the meeting she hopes the group can continue its work with more funding, a permanent MMIWR position in state government and the creation of its own MMIWR clearinghouse.
"Their lives mattered and they were highly valued by their loved ones and we hope this report will move conversations and solutions moving forward," Trujillo said.
Stephanie Salazar, general counsel for the department, said tribes don't have enough funding to meet the "immense need for tribal justice systems" and adds too few detectives are available to investigate missing and murdered persons cases on reservations.
Capt. Troy Velesquaz, tribal liaison for the New Mexico Department of Public Safety and district commander for District 6, said during the meeting that agreements with pueblos and tribes need improvements so state and county officers can work on and off the reservations more easily. Velesquaz also said a MMIWR cold case team with investigators from state, tribal and federal agencies would be helpful.
"As we go into the next legislative session we are thinking about phase two of this work…creating a dedicated position to MMIWR who can lead this work full time, because it takes a lot of work to coordinate, to bring people together, to keep the data collection moving forward," Salazar says. "We do want to see it continue. Hopefully as we get more data coming in, we can produce further reports."
Editors note: An earlier version of this story said that Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office did not send case numbers to the task force. According to the task force report, SFCSO sent case numbers by race and sex.