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The Great Crisis of Albuquerque

Wrapping up a trip to the border, I hopped aboard one of the El Paso Los Angeles Limousine Express buses that travel up Interstate 25. My destination was Albuquerque, the city of beautiful balloons, cool craft beer breweries, the deficit-strapped UNM Lobos, and Walter White wannabes.

Upon entering the Duke City metro area northbound on the interstate, practically the first sight I beheld was the partial closure of the southbound lanes of Interstate 25, where a car and the yellow tape of a crime scene stood. Another road rage incident, like the one not long ago when a four wheeled nut attempted to provoke me into a street duel? High noon in Burque over three lost seconds at a red light.

Turned out that the highway crime scene originated from a New Mexico State Police stop early that morning. A passenger in the detained vehicle fired a gun at the officer, forcing the cop to shoot back and kill the man, state police initially told the media. Eight men have died so far this year in incidents involving five different metro area police agencies.

Unknown to me at the time, the crime scene on Interstate 25 was the second time the busy highway clutched death that summer day. Early in the wee morning hours, another El Paso Los Angeles Limousine bus, this one headed south from Denver to El Paso, was involved in a multi-vehicle accident just north of the Duke City. Three older women on the bus, originally from Mexico but living in Colorado, were killed. More than 30 other passengers were injured in a chain wreck that began with a Honda rear ending another vehicle, according to news reports.

The numbers game

The day after the Interstate 25 closures, I drove up a Mid-Town Albuquerque street only to encounter a fresh road closure and the yellow tape of another crime scene. Albuquerque Police Department (APD) officers milled about, a giant tow truck pulled away, and the bomb squad was parked.

Within the 72 hours of the Interstate 25 crises, emergency responders were busy. His body found in an arroyo, the death of 56-year-old Herbert Hustito was being investigated as a homicide, an APD spokesman later told the Albuquerque Journal.

A violent episode at an apartment complex ended with one man shooting and killing a second. The alleged shooter was later killed by police after a stand-off. Media outlet KOB-TV quoted a woman identified as the girlfriend of the man shot by police describing her slain boyfriend as a PTSD-afflicted veteran who was a good man. Elsewhere in the city, another man was shot and critically wounded.

In another instance of violent death, 28-year-old Alyssa Barboa never made it home after the car she driving was impacted by another at an intersection. A news account suggested that the surviving driver of the second vehicle had been drinking.

July’s victims were among scores of violent deaths in New Mexico’s largest urban area in 2018. Though local media outlets repeat APD numbers of 40 plus homicide victims, a conservative reading of news accounts indicate at least likely 75 victims through August 6 if the four-county metropolitan area is considered. If deaths from incidents that conceivably could net vehicular manslaughter charges are thrown in at least another 11 victims are added to the roll, most of them female. All this with nearly five months to go in the year.

Drug related crimes, road rage, personal disputes and gender violence — routinely labeled “domestic violence” — reportedly shroud the slaughter.

The Journal recently stated that per Uniform Crime reporting guidelines used by the FBI, the newspaper’s numbers do not include non-negligent homicide, killings committed by law enforcement and other slayings “determined to be justifiable.” Based on its criteria, the New Mexico newspaper reported 75 murders within the Albuquerque city limits in 2017, “the highest in recent history.”

In 2016, the last available year of comprehensive statistics, the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator (OMI) reported 103 homicides in the Albuquerque metro area, up from 86 in 2015 and 71 in 2014.

To gauge the real level of Albuquerque metro area violence, and the fallout ranging from devastated families to multi-million dollar taxpayer payouts in lawsuits, this writer maintains that all homicides — “justified” or not — must be counted. For purposes of this story, a definition of homicide from the Merriam-Webster dictionary suffices: “a killing of one human being by another.”

Firearms are the most common means of delivering death in the Duke City. Aping Ciudad Juárez, Mexico to the south, recent homicides have jarred hotels, supermarkets, retail outlets, gas stations, public parks and apartment complexes, sometimes in broad daylight and in front of many people.

Earlier this year I witnessed a fight between two women in a laundromat that might have ended with a fatality if a gun or knife had been drawn. The precipitating reason for the slugfest? An argument over a towel in a dryer. Casual, violent encounters give a strong sense of a city on the emotional precipice — or already over it.

Domestic violence and women’s murders

As of July 31, 18 metro area murder victims in 2018 were women, or almost one quarter of the total.

Rarely, however, does the media or state and local government frame the issue as femicide, the intentional killing of a woman because she is a woman.

“Nobody wants to talk about that, but it should be,” said Ana Salazar, veteran staff member of the Albuquerque-based anti-domestic/ gender violence organization Enlace Comunitario. “There is a lot of silence when murders of women happen.”

In Mexico, where femicides are on the rise and routinely go unpunished, a different discourse based on a gender perspective is nevertheless is emerging in academia, policy circles and the media. Some Mexican states have codified femicide into law and/or approved a system of alerts when gender violence reaches certain levels.

Counting 15 years as an anti-violence professional in both Mexico and the U.S, Salazar was surprised to witness parallels of corruption in the U.S. justice system — despite the greater availability of resources on this side of the border.

“It is very similar in many respects,” she said. “Not everything is perfect here. We’ve seen cases like the woman friend who was stabbed 17 times. She struggled with the courts, the law…”

Though gravely injured, the stabbing victim survived the attack only to see her “boyfriend” aggressor receive a six-year sentence, according to Salazar. The community advocate recalled another local case in which a woman repeatedly reached out for help but was then killed by her partner.

Mainly servicing the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Enlace Comunitario’s work has been more difficult since what might be termed “The Big Chill” took effect after Donald Trump ascended to the White House.

For three months after Trump took office, victims largely stopped coming to Enlace for help out of fear of public exposure, Salazar said. A Duke City judge even conducted proceedings by telephone because women were afraid of attending court in person, she added.

Yet the after-shocks of violence ripple through families impacted by violence, including low self-esteem, PTSD, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, substance abuse, low grades, and lost income. “If you are immersed in violence, you are going to lose income, not go to work and get paid,” Salazar added.

Albuquerque over a cliff

Recent studies document a social and economic collapse in the Duke City metro area during the last decade. A 100-page report by the program evaluation unit of the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee (LFC) issued last month deciphers the Albuquerque metro area’s public safety/health crisis by examining crime, poverty and the economy. Giving some insights into the scope of a hydra-like crisis, the report analyzes the different parts of the local criminal justice system.

According to the study, local and state governments spent $490 million on the Bernalillo County criminal justice system in Fiscal Year 2018.

For the LFC, an uptick in crime was noticed in 2011 “around when metrics of poverty, homelessness, income inequality, drug use, and gun use all worsened…as social conditions deteriorated the criminal justice system held fewer and fewer accountable while crimes continued to increase.”

A report graph shows crime contouring upward in Albuquerque since 2010 while trending downward nationwide.

In a candid City of Albuquerque (CABQ) report examining 2016, the Duke City beats the national average for both violent and property crime, registering 900 violent crimes per 100,000 population compared to 400 nationally. In both categories, crime increased 26 percent between 2014 and 2016, with preliminary data showing the trend continuing through most of 2017.

The LFC reveals that reports of “shootings and shots fired” received by APD soared from 250 calls in 2010 to 5,867 percent in 2017 — an astounding 2,000 percent increase. The Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO) handled 801 similar calls in 2010 compared to 1,371 in 2017, for a 71 percent increase.

Although murder is up, the state study reports that APD’s homicide clearance rate plummeted from 90 percent in 2010 to 50 percent in 2017, while BCSO’s record declined from 71 percent to 60 percent in the same time frame.

During the same years, the individual caseload of APD homicide detectives nearly tripled from 5 to 14 investigations.

Violence has far-reaching repercussions, the LFC observes, citing studies that suggest children living close to violent crime perform worse on standardized tests and tend to have lower social mobility. “Researchers also found that children exposed to recent local violence regress the equivalent going back two years in school,” according to the LFC.

As in 2016, the Albuquerque Metro Area ranked #1 nationally for stolen vehicles, according to a National Insurance Crime Bureau (NCIB) report cited in www.abqreport.com.

The 9,898 vehicles heisted in 2017 broke down to more than one theft per hour over the course of a year. Quoted in a CABQ report, APD blamed auto theft on joy riding, chop shops and the city’s proximity to the Mexican border. Curiously, cities on or closer to the border ranked far down on the NCIB list, including Las Cruces (#No. 2), El Paso (No. 58) and San Diego (No. 171).

Data from the LFC and CABQ provide an economic backdrop to the societal crisis. Graphing the loss of about 40,000 jobs from late 2008 to late 2011, the CABQ report adds that job growth is on the rebound but still has not reached the employment levels prior to the Great Recession. Of course, the big question is: What kind of jobs are being created, and do they pay living wages?

The LFC reports a jump in Bernalillo County families with children living in poverty from 18.9 percent in 2010 to 23.1 percent in 2016, as well as a 63 percent leap in chronic homelessness since 2013.

Meanwhile, the percentage of Albuquerque residents living in high poverty neighborhoods increased from 2.9 percent in 2010 to 10.7 percent in 2016.

Notably, the CABQ report identifies an economic squeeze underway well before the Great Recession, saying wages for the bottom 10 percent of local workers declined by 11 percent from 1979 to 2014 while wages for the top 10 percent rose only by five percent, an increase for better-off workers that still fell “far short of the national average of 17 percent growth.”

The city government’s numbers reveal racial disparities in wages, with people of color holding bachelor’s degrees earning $4 per hour less than whites and women of color making $10 per hour less than white males. In a key measurement of financial and emotional stress, 49 percent of Burqueños spent 30 percent plus of their income on housing in 2015, more evidence that the cost of living is growing impossible for a huge swath of the population.

Ten years after the Great Recession hit, the city is still pockmarked by empty storefronts with “For Lease” signs. For many, the Great Recession has become the Great Crisis.

As Albuquerque’s jobs disappeared, living costs crept upward and poverty spread. Underworld capitalists, however, had a field day. Consumption of methamphetamines, a drug associated with paranoia and violent behavior, yielded a tripling of emergency room visits in Bernalillo County since 2010. Opioid usage and alcohol abuse was likewise on the upswing in recent years, according to the LFC. From 2011 to 2016, the OMI reported 1,645 drug-caused deaths (accidental overdoses, suicides, etc.) in the four-county metro area.

Although Medicaid expansion allowed for greater drug treatment options, the LFC study warns that “UNM and Bernalillo County have identified gaps in available drug treatment despite increases in Medicaid enrollment.”

One can only imagine the statistics if some people added to the Medicaid rolls in Albuquerque and Bernalillo County hadn’t accessed behavioral health treatment in the last couple of years.

Looking at the bright side

While not downplaying the depth of the public safety/health crisis, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller and APD Chief Mike Geier stress positive trends in 2018, casting the spotlight on new city programs they say will uplift Albuquerque.

According to the CABQ, the Fiscal Year 2019 city budget includes $49.1 million set aside for an alternative responder team, behavioral health and homelessness programs, affordable housing, early intervention, and substance abuse treatment.

The mayor recently helped unveil a new city-county needle clean-up initiative aimed at reducing the proliferation of publically discarded syringes, a common sight in the Duke City.

We’re fighting crime from all sides to make our communities safer,” Keller was quoted in a press statement as saying. “There’s no doubt that our city is facing many challenges related to addiction.”

Albuquerque’s new mayor told the public that the S.H.A.R.P. Program “is one way we can work together to take back our parks and playgrounds.” Besides clean-up teams, the initiative includes the placement of six secure drop boxes, or kiosks, where used syringes can be safely disposed in places like Wilson Park, a shady patch of grass situated in the high poverty, high crime Southeast Heights.

Neighborhood watch is one arena where the Keller administration is making itself visible. For August’s national anti-crime National Night Out event, the mayor announced enhanced participation by police, fire and other city employees.

“This is a time when our special city is facing many challenges that no one leader or singular idea can overcome alone… this is an incredible opportunity for city officials to connect with the public in their own neighborhoods about the public safety issues we’re facing,” Keller declared in another statement.

In a response tucked into the LFC report, Geier observed positive crime trends during the first six months of 2018 in comparison with the same period of 2017, including decreases in robbery (31 percent), auto burglary (32 percent) auto theft (18 percent), aggravated assault (5 percent) and rape (4 percent). Simultaneously, APD increased traffic stops by 35 percent, amounting to 6,000 additional stops, Geier wrote.

Recognizing the positive trends reported by Geier, the LFC report nevertheless contains words of caution, pointing out that reported crime statistics are typically an “under representation” since many crimes go unreported.

“According to the Crime Victimization Survey, people report certain crimes at higher rates, such as auto theft…other crimes such as rape may go unreported up to 77 percent of the time,” the study says.

For his part, Geier reported changes or plans in the works that contemplate a return of police substations and bike patrols as well as the hiring of 400 more officers during the next four years. Some blame Albuquerque’s bulging crime stats on a severe officer shortage.

“Despite our progress and the additional resources from Albuquerque taxpayers to pay for more officers, we have a long way to go,“ Geier insisted. “We are still constrained by aging infrastructure and understaffing throughout the department.”

Accordingly, Geier appealed for more legislative support, detailing a wish list of new vehicles, gunshot detection equipment, a helicopter and mobile video trailers for monitoring “neighborhoods and business districts that are hot spots for crime.”

Geier took over a department that was wracked by years of controversy and scandal under the administration of former Mayor Richard Berry. Among other things, public protests over police shootings, a plethora of lawsuits by victims’ relatives, and the intervention of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) marked those years.

APD foot-dragging over compliance with department reforms mandated by the DOJ settlement, the failure to resolve high-profile crimes like the 11 women found murdered and buried on the West Mesa in 2009, and episodes of lying to or withholding information from the media such as in the Victoria Martens atrocity rounded out contentious times. The Keller administration has publically vowed to forge ahead with the DOJ reforms.

Yet new questions and polemics surfaced in the media this summer over APD’s management, including the demotion of the person in charge of investigating wrongdoing by officers at APD, internal affairs head Jennifer Garcia, who was discovered altering documents, according to local media reports. Apart from replacing Garcia, Chief Geier reshuffled the leadership of two quadrant commands and the APD Academy.

The LFC report endorsed the DOJ training and other reforms, detecting headway in making necessary changes. But the researchers conclude that “if reform efforts and cooperation are not improved and maintained, and system performance is not monitored, the potential for failure remains.”

Meantime, the murder rate hasn’t gone down, violence hovers in the air and some are afraid to go out in the dark. More people are frustrated, demanding action.

On Friday, about 40 protesters organized by a new group, Let Our Voices Be Heard, staged a demonstration outside the Children Youth and Families Department (CYFD) office in Albuquerque, outraged by incidents of violence against children such as the 2016 brutal murder of 10-year-old Duke City resident Victoria Martens, whose welfare was earlier probed by CYFD without any action taken.

“CYFD hasn’t done their job and APD, the DA — I don’t think they’re really going after the criminals,” organizer Josh Perez later said. “I got to at least get my voice out there and make these people open their eyes.”

Regarding the Martens case, Perez opined that law enforcement should reinvestigate earlier suspects and hold them accountable. “They’re letting off Victoria’s killers easy,” he said.

In turning around Burque, Perez predicted that a young Mayor Keller would “do good,” but at this stage in his eight month-old administration “it’s still too early for him.” The community activist added that Let Our Voices Heard plans to keep up a public presence and urge authorities to act.

“I feel Albuquerque’s crime has always been a problem,” Perez said. “It will continue until something’s done.”

This article originally appeared in New Mexico Politics.

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Kent Paterson writes for Frontera NorteSur

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