Violence and corruption in Mexico get attention in Washington. More agents and walls on the border, drone surveillance, training of Mexican security forces and official arms sales all figure in as part of Washington”s response.
Under the Merida Initiative first launched during the administration of George W. Bush and then continued in the Obama years, overall U.S. anti-drug and border control aid to the Mexican government reached nearly $2.5 billion from Fiscal Year 2008 to Fiscal Year 2015, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Part of the U.S.-funded Merida money went to supporting good government, justice and “rule of law” reforms aimed at curbing corruption and remolding the notoriously dysfunctional Mexican justice system in the image of the presumably modern and efficient one north of the border.
Left unsaid in the Merida Initiative, however, are the ample instances of corruption that pervade U.S. political, law enforcement and justice institutions. There is no better example than the state of New Mexico.
During the past few years, county jail guards, from big city Albuquerque to little Truth or Consequences, have been accused of brutal beatings, rapes of female inmates and drug-dealing.
Besides violations of U.S. and New Mexico law, such atrocities run counter to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights, the Convention against Torture, the Convention for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and other international laws and agreements.
Moving up the corruption hierarchy, recently-resigned Secretary of State Dianna Duran, the elected official who oversaw New Mexico”s election laws from 2011 to late 2015, began serving a 30-day jail sentence before Christmas after pleading guilty to embezzling money from her campaign fund. The Office of the New Mexico Attorney General found that Duran blew hundreds of thousands of dollars in casinos.
“The swift adjudication of this matter rectifies the public harm done by the criminal conduct of Ms. Duran and saved tremendous taxpayer impeachment resources…,” read a statement from New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas, who has been mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate in 2018.
In addition to a short stint in the slammer, Duran was assessed monetary penalties, given community service and ordered to write letters of apology. She will also be required to deliver 144 anti-inspirational talks to high school and other audiences.
Local anti-corruption activist Larissa Lewis was among New Mexicans who thought Dianna Duran got off light, saying she was disappointed at the “laziness” of Balderas in not throwing the book at Duran.
“A poor desperate kid stealing or dealing (drugs) would get a harsher sentence,” Lewis contended, “unless he was with a “connected gang..” so maybe this reflects the accepted pattern of corruption here.”
The state”s history is ingrained with colorful sagas of corruption, like the land-grabbing Santa Fe Ring of the late 1800s and the Cricket Coogler affair of 1949, in which the mysterious death of a Las Cruces waitress exposed a network of illegal gambling dens, law enforcement corruption, the police torture of a fabricated suspect, and Mafia pretensions to conquer the state capital, as recorded by Las Cruces author Paula Moore in her book Cricket in the Web.
More recently, from 2010 to 2012, local governments in two New Mexico towns bordering Mexico, Columbus and Sunland Park, were virtually dismantled after officials were arrested in scandals separately involving election rigging, embezzlement and arms trafficking to a crime organization south of the border.
The Broken Land of Breaking Bad
Not too long ago, Albuquerque, New Mexico, didn”t rate among the most familiar U.S. cities among many Mexican citizens interviewed by this writer.
All that has changed, thanks to AMC”s late, smash hit series filmed in Albuquerque, “Breaking Bad.” The award-winning series portrays a desperate, underpaid high school science teacher played by Bryan Cranston who begins cranking out high-grade methamphetamine so he can pay for cancer treatments.
While the misadventures of Walter White and his crew have put Albuquerque in the international spotlight, the fictional stories in “Breaking Bad”–however gripping and gruesome they may be–are arguably lightweight in comparison to what really goes on in New Mexico”s largest city.
During the last dozen years the city has successively witnessed the massive theft of evidence–including drugs and money–from Albuquerque Police Department (APD) custody; the discovery of 11 murdered women and girls found in a clandestine cemetery on the West Mesa, not unlike the hundreds that have surfaced south of the border; and the mysterious death of a well-connected lawyer, Mary Han, whose residence was overrun and allegedly ransacked by APD officials when it should have been secured as a crime scene.
Crime, violence and addiction to heroin and meth are rampant. 2015 ended with at least 80 homicides in the greater Albuquerque metro area, according to local press accounts compiled by this writer.
With an estimated metro population of slightly above 900,000, the homicide rate hovers around 9 per 100,000 people, creeping upwards to the 10 murders per 100,000 that the World Health Organization regards as an epidemic.
Last year, seventeen year-old African-American Jaquise Lewis was gunned down in a popular park, Native American Patricia Preciado was discovered half-buried on the West Side and four-year-old Latina Lilly Garcia was shot and killed when an armed man pursued her family’s vehicle in broad daylight during one of the many “road rage” incidents that often make local driving an outtake of Mad Max.
Other victims included women murdered by men, street-level drug dealers, unlucky motorists rammed by drunk drivers, feuding bikers, two police officers shot by repeat offenders, and three men shot by APD officers. APD even almost killed one its own, when one officer shot another during the course of a botched drug sting.
While the murders of the West Mesa 11 linger on in impunity, numerous rapes also go unpunished. In December, the New Mexico State Auditor issued a report that revealed a 20-year backlog in police testing of 5,406 rape kits gathered as evidence, mostly in Albuquerque.
For all its carnage, Albuquerque might not be the worst spot for violence in New Mexico. The media outlet KRQE cited FBI statistics that identified the small city of Gallup, bordering Navajo and other Native lands, as the most violent city in the state in 2013.
Prompted by violence against Native Americans in Gallup, Albuquerque and elsewhere, a new Native activist organization, The Red Nation, has launched the Border Town Justice campaign. In a preliminary tally, the group estimates that at least 170 “unnatural deaths” occurred in Gallup from 2013 to April 2015, including murder, hypothermia, alcohol poisoning, and run-overs by cars and trains.
“I guarantee you (the death toll) is higher now,” Melanie Yazzie, The Red Nation co-founder, said at an Albuquerque demonstration held last summer in honor of two Navajo men, Allison “Cowboy” Gorman and Kee “Rabbit” Thompson who were brutally beaten to death by non-Native teenagers in Albuquerque in 2014. “It seems that nobody cares.”
Yazzie”s words waxed prophetic. In early January, The Red Nation”s Facebook reported the number of Native Americans who had died frozen to death in Gallup so far this winter stood at six.
Slashers, Misers and Holiday Hellraisers
The endemic violence and corruption in the state can be seen as the symptoms of a socio-economic system rooted in conquest and colonialism.
Poor before the Great Recession, New Mexico is arguably poorer now. Though many areas of the U.S have rebounded from the depths of the 2008 Wall Street disaster, New Mexico is stuck in a rut with an unemployment rate officially pegged at 6.8 % in November 2015, a point higher than the previous year and the highest in the United States, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican.
Since 2008, tuition rates have steadily increased at the state”s colleges and universities, while New Mexico”s two largest institutions of higher learning, UNM and NMSU, have seen student enrollment plunge by the thousands. Like a mainland version of Puerto Rico, more people are leaving New Mexico than moving in.
New Mexico political leaders from both major parties have responded with austerity programs. Thousands of state jobs have been slashed, and spending curtailed on everything from highway rest stops to higher education.
Projections of another tight state budget in 2016 prompted the liberal advocacy group New Mexico Voices for Children to declare, “We cannot hope to improve our educational outcomes, child well-being and economy until we are fully funding the programs that ensure (children) have the right start in life.”
Justifications for the austerity regime go beyond strict budgetary reasons. “We”ve got to reduce our dependence on government jobs” is the mantra of the political class. The closest international analogy to New Mexico’s situation is Greece, but in a state where guns are ubiquitous.
A Christmas 2015 pizza party thrown by New Mexico Republican Governor Susana Martinez, the current chair of the national Republican Governors Association, provided a candid peek at the annual state of the state prognosis that is usually delivered by the governor in January.
Local police were called out to Martinez”s holiday bash at a Santa Fe hotel after rowdy behavior and bottle-throwing was reported. Caught on audiotape after perhaps one too many drinks, Martinez was heard urging the police to withdraw because everything was under control.
Although she later apologized for the incident, Martinez”s initial statement that only snowballs had been tossed drew the scorn of the press and pundits, while her short-circuiting of law enforcement cast the state”s chief executive as if she were above the law.
When taxpayers found out that the governor spent thousands of dollars on the Christmas blow-out at a time she was preparing new regulations that require food stamp recipients to work, criticism reached a peak.
“I am grateful Gov. (Martinez) showed her true nature,” activist Larissa Lewis later said. “She should donate at least $7K to poor families struggling instead of denying food unless they volunteer.”
Police Violence: A Flashpoint of Crisis
Police shootings, mainly of men but of some women too, have been a flashpoint in a crisis of justice, human rights, governance and accountability.
Forty-two police shootings took place in Albuquerque between 2010 and 2014, including 27 fatal cases. The shootings inspired one of New Mexico”s most important grassroots movements in recent decades.
Relatives of men slain by APD got the movement ball rolling by staging demonstrations, filing lawsuits, lobbying politicians and demanding the intervention of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). But the protest acquired a mass character in March 2014 after two APD officers shot and killed a mentally disturbed, white homeless man, James Boyd, following a day-long standoff.
Outraged by a video depicting Boyd”s killing and APD Chief Gorden Eden”s quick justification of the shooting, hundreds took to the streets. For weeks, the protesters employed tactics that included blockading an interstate, taking over a city council meeting and proclaiming a popular assembly, and staging a march to Roosevelt Park, the site of a historic 1971 youth rebellion against APD.
Coming months before the Ferguson, Missouri uprising, Albuquerque also foreshadowed Baltimore and other U.S. cities where thousands have demonstrated against police violence, especially against African-Americans and other people of color. Of the 27 people killed by APD between 2010 and 2014, Latinos and African-Americans were slightly overrepresented according to the City of Albuquerque”s own analysis.
In the aftermath of the Boyd protests, the DOJ became visible. Overseeing the intervention was Vanita Gupta, the head of the DOJ”s civil rights division and a woman well-versed in law enforcement abuses and corruption.
As a young attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People”s Legal Defense Fund in 2003, Gupta was instrumental in winning the freedom of African American and other defendants jailed in the notorious 1999 drug sting in Tulia, Texas that exposed scandalous police conduct.
In 2014, the DOJ publicly released a report on APD that essentially vindicated complaints of excessive force by victims” relatives. The feds recommended reforms that would become part of a court-enforceable consent decree between the City of Albuquerque, APD and the DOJ. A new police oversight body was eventually assembled.
Although some residents demanded the DOJ to go deeper than it did in probing APD and larger matters of possible corruption, Washington”s involvement so far is narrowed to concerns of use of force and retraining the police department to employ alternatives in potentially violent situations. One local activist group, ABQ Justice, issued a report contending that the DOJ glossed over racial discrimination in policing.
In a milestone, the two officers identified as the shooters of James Boyd, Keith Sandy and Dominique Perez, face trial for second-degree murder. Whether the two men will be convicted by a New Mexico jury remains to be seen.
Before the Boyd affair, “investigations” of officers involved in fatal shootings conducted by the Bernalillo County District Attorney routinely concluded with no charges ever filed.
The DOJ-city legal settlement has been off to a slow start. Delays reportedly had to with objections to reforms from the local police union, the Albuquerque Police Officers Association (APOA). The APOA came under scrutiny in December when its then-president, officer Stephanie Lopez, was arrested for beating up and threatening her teenage daughter in an alleged outbreak of domestic violence. Lopez has since resigned from the APOA presidency.
The City of Albuquerque has paid dearly for blue violence. Tallies by the local press calculate that the city government has incurred more than $23 million in lawsuit settlements or awards to relatives of police victims since 2010. Additional expenses for implementing the DOJ”s reforms and paying for the federally-appointed monitor tasked with overseeing the process are likely to cost millions more during the next few years.
On the streets, meanwhile, the number of fatal shootings by APD officers dropped from six in 2014 to three in 2015.
Statewide, however, fatal police shootings are up, reaching 21 last year according to a count published by the London-based Guardian newspaper. In addition to Albuquerque, men were killed by police in Taos, Edgewood, Deming and other smaller towns that are not covered by DOJ consent decrees.
And the trend continues. 2016 was barely a week old when a man reportedly holding a gun to his head and threatening suicide was shot and killed by the New Mexico State Police near Carrizozo. Capping an overnight standoff early on January 7, the man allegedly fired shots at officers, who responded in kind.
In a statement, the New Mexico State Police said an internal unit was investigating the shooting, while “all the officers” involved are on standard administrative leave. Frequently, the New Mexico State Police are called in to “investigate” shootings committed by other officers from other agencies.
The Carrizozo killing recalled the 2010 APD shooting of troubled Iraq war vet Ken Ellis III, who was killed after holding a gun to his head but not firing shots at officers.
The use of force by officers of the law has proven to be a litmus test of the state”s Sunshine Law, especially as it pertains to videos and other official records of shootings. Contrary to the spirit of public information access, getting relevant records has often been a Herculean task for lawyers, journalists and citizens.
Challenging the iron vault, the local ACLU has filed a lawsuit against APD on behalf of a citizen journalist website, Burquemedia.com, alleging that the police improperly withheld video footage requested by Burquemedia.com of a fatal police shooting in 2015.
“To ensure public trust in law enforcement, citizens and journalists must have access to information about how police use force in the community,” said ACLU-NM Legal Director Alexandra Freedman Smith “APD must rise to this basic standard of openness and transparency, follow the law, and provide this information to the people they serve.”
In a potentially explosive development, the former APD records custodian in charge of denying the requested footage, Reynaldo Chavez, filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the City of Albuquerque January 8 claiming that he was ordered to obstruct or even destroy records.
According to the Albuquerque Free Press, APD Chief Eden was among the officials instructing Chavez to derail information requests on controversial cases like lawyer Mary Han”s death, assorted police shootings and the unprosecuted murder of teen Jaquise Lewis, whose supporters contend was shot to death by an accused drug trafficker known to APD.
“There is always more to the story when the City finds it necessary to fire an employee. That is true here, as well…” Jessica Hernandez, the City of Albuquerque”s attorney, told KRQE in response to Chavez”s lawsuit.
Lessons from this Side of the Border
Without a doubt, the picturesque set of “Breaking Bad” contains real-life lessons for police accountability, respect for human rights standards, governmental accountability, institutional transparency, and the nature of justice. In the case of the DOJ”S intervention, the New Mexico experience illustrates the limitations of piecemeal changes to one part of a machine that is broken.
Collectively, these failures harken to what is known in Mexican political discourse as “decomposition,” or the deterioration of the social fabric and the State. Mexican poet and human rights activist Javier Sicilia takes it one step further, calling the crisis of justice and human rights in his country, which bears far more resemblance to the one north of the border than officials in Santa Fe or Washington would care to admit, a “crisis of civilization.”
Unlike “Breaking Bad”, the story in New Mexico and Albuquerque is not over with outcomes waiting to be written into a script. On one side of the spectrum, part of the community is pushing for a reformed police force with a fair and transparent justice system in line with human and civil rights.
On the other side, Republican State Representative Nate Gentry and others, in reaction to the murders of two Albuquerque area police officers last year, are feeding the narrative of a “war against police” that is fomenting social chaos. They advocate that violence against cops be legislated a “hate crime” like attacks against people of color, women and LGBT people.
Larissa Lewis, who has long protested the murder of her 21-year-old son Kerry by men she maintains were police informants, said she was grateful for the DOJ”s intervention in spite of shortcomings in its oversight.
Lewis is among relatives who tirelessly hit the streets with pictures of their loved ones in tow. For the New Mexico activist, the continued resolve of family members was crucial in making their grievances a major public issue.
“Victims” families and concerned citizens have been empowered by the many expressions, demonstrations and presentations to the City Council,” Lewis wrote in an e-mail. “We were at the forefront of the anti-police violence wave, and this has forced the media to spotlight the issue. No justice, No peace.”