Armed and Young

New Mexico sees increase in youth firearm deaths

(Anson Stevens-Bollen)

Recent shootings involving young adults and youths, coupled with rising gun-related deaths among teens, are setting off alarm bells among New Mexicans and the law enforcement officials employed to protect them.

According to a study by New Mexico State University professor Jagdish Khubchandani, who analyzed data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, New Mexico saw a 45% increase in gun deaths between 2010 and 2019 for residents 19 and under. The overall rate per 100,000 people, meanwhile, has climbed by 30%.

Santa Fe Police Chief Paul Joye says the figures indicate a need for change. He’s an advocate for working with outreach groups for intervention and diversion efforts, “to find these at-risk youths before they go down this road and make a decision that they can’t take back.”

“It’s very easy to distance yourself when you talk about numbers and statistics, but when you break it down, each one of these numbers is somebody’s life,” Joye tells SFR. “It’s someone’s friend, child, sibling—and it’s terrible.”

Joye and Santa Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza say they’re not just tracking a jump in young people victimized in violent crimes; they’ve also seen an increase in youthful offenders committing violent or gun-related crimes.

According to Chief Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Padgett Macias, there was an uptick of youth gun violence in 2020, “without question.” However, many of those types of cases never result in charges or convictions because of a lack of suspects or uncooperative witnesses.

“So those cases never truly came to fruition, but the activity, the crimes around gun violence was certainly an uptick in 2020,” Padgett Macias says.

The Santa Fe area has seen multiple teen deaths as a result of gun violence in recent years. Earlier this month, Santa Fe Police Department officers found Juan Emmanuel Vazquez-Salas, 19, suffering from a fatal gunshot wound in the parking lot of Las Palomas Apartments. No suspects have been identified.

In 2020, local basketball star Fedonta “JB” White, 18, was shot outside of a house party in Chupadero. Estevan Montoya, who was 16 at the time, was sentenced in June to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 30 years. Also in 2020, 17-year-old Ivan Perez, Montoya’s friend, was shot and killed in the parking lot of The Bluffs at Tierra Contenta Apartments. Charges against the suspected shooter, who was 18 at the time, were dropped last September with prosecutors citing a flawed police investigation.

Last year, Abram Martinez, 17, was charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of Isaiah Herrera, 19. The jury selection for his case is scheduled for August.

Recently, Santa Fe police took two teens into custody for their alleged involvement in a drive-by shooting on June 18. A 70-year-old woman was shot in the abdomen while sleeping in her living room. The suspected shooter, Santos Ben Atenco, turned himself in June 20 and is charged with aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, shooting at or from a motor vehicle resulting in great bodily harm and conspiracy to shoot at or from a motor vehicle. Authorities hit the suspected driver, Patrick Marquez, with similar charges.

The shooting has left residents on Gomez Road in the South Capitol neighborhood on edge, Eric Radack tells SFR.

“Many of the immediate neighbors are experiencing PTSD after the shooting,” Radack says. “We’re hyper-vigilant for loud cars in the night. For many nights, I’ve woken at exactly the time of the shooting in the morning, at 6:15. I’m afraid in my neighborhood, in my home.”

Radack, who lives across the street from the house that was shot at, was the first to render aid to the woman, helping control the bleeding while waiting for EMTs to arrive. He says the latest incident highlights the broader issues facing his neighborhood and the country.

“This lethal combination of young men with easy access to guns, either legally or illegally, and the presence of powerful drugs in the community are a toxic element in Santa Fe and beyond,” he says. “This was a transitional, working-class to upper-class neighborhood in South Capitol, almost in the shadow of the Roundhouse, and yet this type of crime was perpetrated.”

Cases involving teen offenders often draw significant attention. Montoya’s trial lasted nearly two weeks in New Mexico’s First Judicial District Court. Judge T. Glenn Ellington handed down the life sentence, but attorneys for the teen are planning an appeal.

“It’s not over, yet, that’s for sure—not by a long shot,” says Dan Marlowe, Montoya’s attorney.

Marlowe plans to ask the state Supreme Court for a summary reversal in the case, arguing Ellington should have instructed the jury to consider self defense. He cites testimony that White was swinging at Montoya when the bullet struck him. He feels his client was treated harshly and points to the environment in which he grew up as a primary factor.

“He didn’t have a real good upbringing and he thought he was a tough guy,” Marlowe says. “That’s the style now—the fashion, so to speak. It’s just the way kids are these days. It used to be you’d beat people up. Nowadays, you shoot people.”

The biggest change in youth firearm deaths between 2010 and 2019 was the suicide rate. That figure shot up by 63%. The rate of homicides rose by 19%. Khubchandani, the NMSU professor whose study was published in the American Journal of Medicine, examined 2020 figures for SFR and found that of the 41 gun deaths among people 19 and under in New Mexico, 23 were suicides and 17 were homicides. (One was unintentional.)

Khubchandani wasn’t surprised by the numbers and believes the trend will continue. He points to the fact that US civilians had stockpiled more than 393 million guns by 2017.

“We have more guns than people now,” he tells SFR. “It’s been a constant increase in household ownership. On top of that, we’ve not done anything dramatic to change access to weapons for kids or invest huge amounts of money in mental health issues.”

In New Mexico, it’s illegal for people under 19 to possess or purchase a handgun. Sheriff Mendoza says he’d favor legislation to raise the age limit, adding that it takes a community to snuff out gun possession among young people.

“We need to empower parents to be aware of what’s happening in their homes…We need to engage the youth that using firearms and arming yourself is not the answer,” Mendoza says. “I think we need to take some simple measures about educating and encouraging families and parents to lock up their firearms so they’re not easily accessible by the youth.”

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