The Brilliant, Beautiful and Ugly Faces of October

Another glorious New Mexico autumn is upon us. Along the Rio Grande, the changing color of the bosque canopy harkens the coming of the crows. In the Hatch Valley, reddening chiles, blossoming white cotton balls and towering, shadowy stands of corn paint a brilliant mosaic. In the skies of Albuquerque, hot-air balloons puff away as the seasonal scent of roasting green chile rises from below.  On Nob Hill, street musicians serenade the night.

Most of all, fall in New Mexico is the big and joyous time of the year for community festivals and concerts, family get-togethers, football showdowns between the Lobos and the Aggies, and baseball playoffs on the big screen.
But the land projects a dual face, partially glimpsed in the contrasting messages of the New Mexico Department of Tourism’s New Mexico True blitz of “Adventure that Feeds the Soul” and New Mexico Truth, a media initiative launched by CHI St. Joseph’s Children that pointedly reminds the public how one-third of the state’s children live in poverty and the Land of Enchantment is rated 49th nationally for child well-being.

Without a doubt, 2016 has been one of the toughest years on record in the Land of Enchantment. A continued economic slump, a projected state budget shortfall tipping over the half- billion dollar mark connected to a dependence on declining energy sector revenues and tax cuts for the wealthy, cutbacks in higher education and other government services, and layoffs all have the state hobbling along on one shaky leg. State Auditor Tim Keller disclosed last month that the New Mexico Office of the Superintendent of Insurance failed to collect at least $193 million in taxes from insurance companies from 2010 to 2015.

Conversations in grocery stores and other public places are revealing. “Highway robbery,” said one woman surveying the commodities in an aisle. “How am I going to pay the rent increase?” another woman said in an anguished voice while doing her laundry.  “Trudging along, that’s all we can do,” concluded a clerk and his customer. At a busy Burque intersection, a panhandler simply held up a sign that proclaimed, “Too ugly to prostitute…”

Convened September 30 to the state capital of Santa Fe by Governor Susana Martinez, only weeks before elections and at a time when hotels charge hefty balloon fiesta rates, a special session of the New Mexico State Legislature appears stalled between the Democratic-dominated Senate, which quickly passed a series of budget crisis-related bills before adjourning, and the Republican-controlled House, which insists on passing crime bills.

New Mexicans have been horrified by gruesome crimes this year. Though not treated as such in the mass media or by law enforcement officials, femicides constitute an important slice of the atrocities. High profile crimes include June’s mass murder in Roswell of Cynthia Villegas and her four daughters aged 3 to 14, Yamilen, Cynthia Janeth, Abby and Ida, allegedly by gun-wielding husband and father Juan David Villegas Hernandez; the abduction, sexual assault and murder of 11-year-old Ashlynne Mike on the Navajo Nation; and the gunning down in the Duke City of 39-year-old Cam To and her 11-year-old daughter Nhi Nguyen, fresh arrivals from Vietnam, again in another act of violence traced to an allegedly abusive husband.

Then there is the unspeakable Albuquerque crime of Victoria Martens, who was allegedly injected with meth, raped and then strangled and stabbed to death on the eve of her 11th birthday by a man and his female cousin.  All while Victoria’s mother allegedly looked on to obtain “sexual gratification,” according to various media accounts.

In Albuquerque alone, 46 homicides were committed between January 1 and  September 19 of this year, according to the Albuquerque Journal. Nonetheless, the number is deceptive since it fails to take into account the greater metro area encompassing the unincorporated area of Bernalillo County as well as the neighboring counties of Valencia, Sandoval and Torrance.

A review by FNS of media reports through October 2 reveals at least a dozen additional homicides in the greater Duke City metro area plus five other suspicious deaths probed by authorities.  As FNS commented nearly two years ago (a link to the earlier piece is at the bottom of this article), when Albuquerque’s boosters pitch tourism and outside capital investment they promote the city as part of a larger, dynamic metro area.  Yet when it comes to crime rates and other inconvenient indices officials like to confine numbers to municipal and county boundaries, as if bad things halt at a yellow line.

Besides murder, other crimes on the rise in New Mexico in 2016 include auto theft, sexual assault and robbery. This year’s bad stats could even best those of 2015, when New Mexico was rated number three in the nation in terms of violent crime by the FBI, the Journal recently reported. Personally, the writer knows several people who’ve suffered auto thefts, carjackings and other robberies this year.

In Albuquerque this summer, the writer came across the aftermath of a long car chase involving police that ended with the pursued car smashing into another vehicle before veering into the big front window of a Central Avenue storefront.  Miraculously, no one was reported seriously injured. Perhaps ironically, the storefront was empty- just one of many vacant commercial properties littering the Duke City, soon to be joined by Hastings and an Office Max.

Violence is also on the upswing in New Mexico’s two big neighbors to the south, El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua. El Paso, which has prided itself as consistently ranking among the safest cities in the United States in recent years, is getting edgy over crime spikes that include 18 murders so far this year, in comparison to 17 for all of 2015, according to KVIA and the El Paso Times.

Additionally, there is the case of Anthony Trejo, whose body has not yet been found. Reportedly, Trejo was murdered in El Paso last month and his body transported across the border to Mexico, where it was dumped in an unknown location. Three men and a woman from El Paso have been charged in connection with the crime. The Trejo murder/disappearance isn’t the first time a victim was slain on the U.S. side of the border and the body disposed of in Mexico, as FNS has reported over the years.

El Paso County and the Albuquerque metropolitan area are roughly comparable in population size. And like Albuquerque, the homicide numbers cited above are for the city of El Paso proper. However, the Times reported at least four other murders occurred in the greater metro area in  2015.  Overall, though, El Paso is a less murderous place than Albuquerque, news that some Pasenos react to with surprise. Based on police numbers, the Times earlier this year calculated that the Texas city has average 15 homicides per year since 2001.

An unusually high number of female homicide victims, eight out of 17, stood out in El Paso last year. But again like New Mexico, femicide, or the killing of women for gender reasons, did not predominate in the media or official discourse.
Ciudad Juarez, which registered an important if not decisive drop in violence and crime after 2012, is also jittery, experienced nearly 60 slayings during the month of September alone, bringing the murder total for the first nine months of the year to 358, according to El Diario de Juarez.  In 2015, 239 people were murdered in Juarez, the newspaper reported.

Juarenses have different explanations for the uptick in violence. Some insist it is a death squad-like “cleansing” of rival criminal elements prior to the prickly state and municipal governmental transitions that are unfolding this week, while others blame gangland disputes over control of the street drug trade, especially meth, in the newer southeastern and poorer quarters  of the sprawling city. Some note the coincidence between the arrival of a new contingent of Federal Police and the spike in violence, a pattern which was also evident during the so-called narco war of 2008-2012.  And yet others view a link in the transfer earlier this year of accused drug lord Chapo Guzman to a federal prison on the outskirts of Juarez.

At a recent Juarez conference on forced disappearance, Gabino Gomez, longtime rural leader and human rights activist, put the new violence in Juarez and Chihuahua state in this context: “Chihuahua is in flames. It’s bankrupt, with many deficiencies. That’s what the authorities are leaving us.”

If current trends continue, Gomez’s words might apply to New Mexico as well. Indeed, El Diario de Juarez, has devoted a lot of attention lately to violent incidents in the neighboring Land of Enchantment. New Mexico violence joins police shootings, athlete protests against police violence, Donald Trump and the peso devaluation, which fell to 20 to the dollar last month, as among the top stories about this country emphasized in the border and national Mexican press this year.

A colorful drawing of a dollar bill soaring in space along with an astronaut, UFOs, spaceships and floating planets adorns the cover of the late September edition of the Juarez publication El Reto. Conversely, some analysts foresee the peso plunging to even greater depths by year’s end. Talk of the “Trump Effect” on the peso is mounting. Bose Bank’s Gabriel Siller, for example, told La Jornada last week that skittishness over U.S. monetary policy and Donald Trump are partially behind the continued peso devaluation.

Besides Mexican consumers who must pay more for imported goods from the United States, that’s bad news for merchants in downtown El Paso who depend on customers from across the border. If the devalued peso wasn’t enough to take a bitter bite from their business, El Paso’s downtown merchants must cope with the current tear-up of their streets in advance of a new trolley system envisioned as a detonator of a great economic leap forward.  Asked how much business had been lost recently, a downtown store clerk flatly told this writer “90 percent.”

The downtown roadwork is just one of many projects underway in El Paso, where simultaneous construction on Paisano near the border line, Interstate 10 and elsewhere have produced monumental, California-like traffic jams, particularly on the great detour of Mesa Avenue.

Similar scenes-and business outcomes- could be in store for Albuquerque, where work is hitting a high gear this month in reshaping the main drag of Central Avenue, the Old Route 66, for a new and highly contentious bus system known as Albuquerque Rapid Transit.

A cruise up and down Central Avenue to behold its “buzzing neon signs, vintage motels and historic architecture” is one of the adventures recommended in the New Mexico True campaign. A Central Avenue tour will also encounter rampant homelessness, a burned out hotel, the ruins of an old Long John Silver’s restaurant, drug dealing and other exotic activities befit for a New Mexico Truth excursion. Either way, anyone interested in taking in Albuquerque’s old Route 66 as it once existed better do so very soon, as the Princes of Progress are primed to work their magic and deliver the promised economic nirvana.

For more on patterns of New Mexico violence:

-Kent Paterson

Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico

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