Tourism industry boosters in New Mexico plan to redouble their efforts at luring more visitors to the Land of Enchantment in 2015.
“New Mexico is a world class destination-a legendary place to experience truly genuine adventure and culture all at once,” said Richard Holcomb, chairman of the board of the newly-formed New Mexico Hospitality Association, in an recent appeal for increasing state support to the private tourism sector.
On many different counts, New Mexico is indeed a land of adventure, though perhaps not in ways considered by the tourism industry. For instance, it’s not unlikely that a visitor to the state’s biggest city will encounter a high-speed chase through the streets, a school lockdown, a barricade situation or, mundanely, cops and or firemen pulling the latest homeless person up from the ground.
An excursion down trails paralleling the Rio Grande in Albuquerque’s South Valley might even snag a hiker a memorable souvenir or two: a used syringe or a spoon charred from cooking heroin.
“Adventure” also awaits in two favored Albuquerque visitation districts: Downtown and Nob Hill. In the former, two different murders happened last year after night clubs were emptying out while, separately, the bouncer beating of an allegedly out-of-control customer outside a strip club, an establishment which had been the previous subject of hundreds of calls to police according to one news report, became a street spectacle and later went “viral” on the Internet.
Reputedly, Nob Hill is a safer and “classier” outing than funky Downtown. Yet, numerous incidents chalked up in 2014 included regular break-ins or vandalisms of businesses; the midday (non-fatal) shooting of a teenager; burglarized cars in “secure” parking lots supposedly watched by private security; a stabbing outside a club that left three people injured; near fist fights between cab drivers and other Johnny Tapia wannabees; and a roaming truck with occupants hurling missiles, including one that whizzed by the ear of this writer.
And a memorable experience for all was had one evening when an Albuquerque Police Department (APD) helicopter rattled the roofs of the trendy nightlife district as officers closed down a side street and proceeded on a multi-hour search for a suspect who rammed a pick-up onto the curb of Central Avenue, the Duke City’s main drag.
As the year crawled toward an end, other mega-incidents roiled the city. On Halloween Day, at the precise moment a press conference was being held in downtown Albuquerque to announce an agreement between the city government and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), a military plane eerily circled the city center while a helicopter buzzed over other parts of the city.
The flights coincided with the massive search for a 10-year-old Rio Rancho girl reported missing, but who suddenly turned up safe with no real public explanation of her disappearance in the first place.
Several weeks later, in another militarized police mobilization staged under strange circumstances, a section of the troubled Southeast Heights was sealed off after reports circulated of a man stalking the street with a gun and residents hearing shots. The incident, however, ended as a seemingly false alarm before it faded away from the news.
Last August, the Duke City was jolted by homicide, especially by four killings. Three teenagers were accused of brutally beating to death two homeless Navajo men, Allison Gorman and Kee Thompson, while the victims were resting in an empty lot on West Central Avenue. In the Southeast Heights, Mary Ellen Gutierrez was beaten to death in an empty lot early one morning-in plain view of witnesses.
In another episode, the Albuquerque Journal blamed “jealous rage” for the shooting death in broad daylight of Anna Vigil by Marcos Delgado, again in full public sight.
Delgado, in turn, later shot and killed himself as police were moving in. The man’s violent outburst left a young boy an orphan.
APD spokespersons, including Janet Blair, a former television personality who briefly served with the department before resigning, downplayed the mounting homicide toll to the Journal. They argued that the 15 murders committed in the city from January to late August 2014 were well below the average 30 registered during the same eight-month period since 2009.
Blair said recent murders had no “underlying factor,” but a review of press reports show many homicides having a pattern of guns, alcohol, drugs and domestic or gender violence.
APD’S numbers, which count homicides under the jurisdiction of their department, understate murder in the metro area, which effectively encompasses Bernalillo County, the City of Rio Rancho in Sandoval County and increasingly proximate areas of Valencia and Torrance counties.
In the modern metro area, neighborhoods and boundaries merge and meander. The residents of a multi-jurisdictional area maintain social and business relationships across county lines, reside in one entity while working in another and, sometimes, do dastardly things in a neighboring county.
In essence, confining Albuquerque’s murder rate to crimes within the city limits is akin to concluding that murder-minded individuals suddenly turn around at the city’s boundary.
An expanded definition of the homicide rate would at least consider Bernalillo County as a whole. Under this broader schema, in the four months between late August and late December, the local press reported at least 15 additional murders in Albuquerque and Bernalillo County-twice the pace of APD’s earlier homicide assessment as told to the Journal.
The latest victims were mostly killed by guns, including 27-year-old James Lucero, who reportedly lost his life over a petty heroin debt.
In another statistical spin, local media outlet KOB reported that Albuquerque murders were down 41 percent for the first half of 2013. Yet, annual reports by the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator (OMI) showed virtually no difference in homicides for Bernalillo County between 2012 and 2013, with 56 people slain in the former year and 55 murdered during the latter one.
Other violent crimes like rape continued to grab public attention in 2014. The DOJ, which signed a consent decree for policing reforms with the City of Albuquerque last year after a federal probe found a pattern of excessive force by city cops, also set its eyes on another big local institution.
According to a DOJ news release, the federal agency is “investigating multiple complaints regarding the University of New Mexico’s handling of sexual assaults and sexual harassment of students at the University,” The DOJ said the investigation was being conducted under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Education Amendments of 1972, which both prohibit sex discrimination in education programs.”
Anti-violence and anti-corruption activist Larissa Lewis, whose 21-year-old son Kerry was murdered in Albuquerque by men she contends were police informants in 2009, has long maintained that the Duke City is a dangerous place.
In an e-mail to FNS, Lewis cited an unsafe campus environment, rampant auto thefts and a pre-Thanksgiving tragedy in which two UNM students, Brianna Hillard and Matthew Grant, were killed when the driver of a stolen truck collided into their vehicle, which ironically, was heisted from an individual who knew one of the subsequent victims.
According to Lewis, her late son’s girlfriend has had three separate vehicles stolen since 2009, with the latest one recovered from a “yard” six months after the theft and with an extra 20,000 miles tacked on to the odometer.
“How does a reported stolen car get 20,000 miles on it?” Lewis pondered. The possible answer, of course, is visible any old Duke City day in the frequent passings of vehicles, many of them violating traffic regulations of all sorts, that have no license plate whatsoever or one which is partially or completely covered up in a back window. Rarely are such vehicles pulled over.
In the aftermath of the knifing of a female UNM student back in 2010, Lewis recalled that she picketed both the university and the Round House demanding justice and action on public safety.
The deaths of UNM students Hillard and Grant show, once again, that the City of Breaking Bad is truly a shaky place, Lewis contended.
“The accident did not occur in a vacuum, and APD’s failure at policing for community safety was a contributing factor,” she wrote.
Rocked by assorted scandals, protests over police shootings, retirement program changes and the reported collapse of internal morale, APD has steadily lost personnel since 2010, to the tune of 20 percent of the professionally recommended force level of 1,000 officers, according to Albuquerque media outlet KRQE.
Not to pick on Albuquerque. Violent crime flared across New Mexico in 2014. In October, two Santa Fe teenagers, 18-year-old Venacio Cisneros and 13-year-old Anamarie Ojeda, were found shot to death inside a vehicle located outside the capital city. In November, a six-year-old boy was present as his mother, Ariel Ulibarri, was attacked and stabbed to death in a Clovis park. In the same month, Valencia County sheriff’s deputies arrested 29-year-old Andrea Kaesberg for murder after her 34-year-old boyfriend, Elfego Orona, was stabbed and later died of his wounds. In Hobbs, a 16-year-old boy was shot to death.
KRQE cited an FBI report that ranked Gallup as the New Mexico city with the highest violent crime rate in 2013, with 463 violent crimes- including murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault- amounting to more than one serious crime per day. This record represented an 11 percent increase from 2012’s statistics, according to the news outlet.
New Mexico’s homicide rate slipped during 2011-2013, but still remained high by national standards. Statewide, the OMI reported 167 homicides in 2011, 160 in 2012 and 169 in 2013, the latest year for which statistics are posted. The killings in 2013 translated into a state murder rate of 6.6 per 100,000 people, as opposed to the national rate of 5.3 per 100,000 people. The OMI routinely notes in its annual reports, “As with suicide rates, homicide rates in New Mexico tend to be higher than the national rate.”
In a longer-range view, the OMI’s numbers report at least 3,484 homicides in New Mexico from 1995 to 2013. The number is almost certainly an undercount since scores of people who could have been victims of foul play remain disappeared from the 19-year period in question. The 1995-2013 murder toll actually beats out the 3,466 people killed in Northern Ireland during the nearly 30 year-period of conflict between 1969 and 1998.
According to researcher Malcolm Sutton, the 3,466 victims included British soldiers, police, civilians, and members of nationalist and loyalist paramilitary organizations.
At first glance, comparing New Mexico with Northern Ireland, which reached comparable populations by the 1990s, would seem far-fetched. But both places have similar histories of violent colonial conquest, chronic underdevelopment, outmigrations by natives, entrenched systems of social stratification, and rampant substance abuse. While fervor for independence from a colonial power- and the reaction to it- drove the Northern Ireland violence, the systemic carnage in New Mexico buzzes on with little or no ideological forethought or afterthought.
In the Land of Enchantment, it is difficult not to meet anyone who personally knew or knew of a murder victim.
Finally, at least 19 people died in New Mexico last year in incidents involving police officers. While media attention hovered on the Duke City, where APD officers shot and killed five people (four men and one woman), most of the shootings were conducted by other law enforcement agencies in and out of Bernalillo County. In 2014, 15 people were shot to death by APD, the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department, the U.S. Marshals Service, the New Mexico State Police, the Bloomfield Police Department, the Espanola Police Department and Las Cruces Police Department.
Additionally, two Albuquerque women, Barbara Arriola and Anna Kauska, died after a high-speed autumn chase with Santa Ana tribal police and Sandoval County deputies. Earlier, in April, 44-year-old pedestrian Natividad Nunez was run over by Dona Ana County Sheriff’s Deputy Eden Terrazas, 22, who was reportedly speeding at 114 mph along State Road 192 while responding to a report of a missing child. Dona Ana County was also the final stop for a 29-year-old Santa Fe County sheriff’s deputy, Jeremy Martin, who died after he was allegedly shot in the back in Las Cruces’ Hotel Encanto (Hotel Enchantment) by fellow off-duty officer Tai Chan following an argument.
The upscale establishment has been selected as the favored lodging for tourists visiting the New Mexico Spaceport, the fantasy destination built with more than $200 million in taxpayer funds that has experienced repeated delays in actually sending wealthy thrill seekers soaring toward the heavens.
In the Albuquerque metro area, meanwhile, 2015 kicked off with one man shot and injured during a January 2 home invasion; an APD police officer shot and wounded during a January 3 traffic stop; a man wounded in a shooting on Central Avenue in East Nob Hill; an individual hospitalized from a January 4 shooting in northwest Albuquerque; and the continued search for a third suspect in the Christmas Eve stabbing murder of 26-year-old Idali Reyes, reportedly because of a dispute over a money debt.
Additional sources: Koat.com, January 2, 3 and 4, 2015. Articles by Regina Ruiz and Pat Holmes. Dailylobo.com. November 24, 2014. Article by Jonathan Baca. KVIA.com, May 2, July 9 and September 27. 2014. El Diario de El Paso, September 27, 2014. KTSM.com, September 26, 2014. KOB.com, August 13 and 28, 2014; September 3, 2014; October 8, 29 and 30, 2014; November 1 and 15, 2014; December 1 and 4, 2014; January 2, 4 and 5, 2015. Articles by Stuart Dyson, Devin Neeley, Blair Miller, Elizabeth Reed, Kai Porter, and Kristen Garcia.
KRQE.com, August 15, 2014; October 27, 2014; November 11 and 13, 2014. Articles by Aaron Brawhorn and editorial staff. Albuquerque Journal, August 22, 2014. Article by Patrick Lohmann. Las Cruces Sun News, April 17, 2014. Article by James Staley.