By Susan Montoya Bryan
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Thursday signed legislation aimed at ensuring more effective coordination among law enforcement agencies when it comes to cases involving missing or slain Native American women.
Aside from creating a new position in the state attorney general’s office that will focus on cases involving missing Indigenous victims, the measures will boost data collection and education as well as provide grant funding to improve reporting of missing persons cases.
A large group of family members whose loved ones have gone missing or been killed flanked the governor as she pulled out a special pen and signed the legislation during an emotional ceremony at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque.
Lujan Grisham shared a long embrace with relatives of Shawna Toya as the tears flowed. Toya, a mother of four from Jemez Pueblo, was found dead last year in Albuquerque, and her family is pushing authorities to reopen her case. They said her death has turned their lives upside down.
Lujan Grisham said the signing of the bills should be seen as a declaration that the state is willing to put in the work needed to find justice for victims’ families and prevent future tragedies.
“Not one more tragedy. Not one more family ripped apart. Not one more excuse about why it’s difficult, particularly in Indigenous communities, to do right by the women, their families and every missing, murdered and at-risk person,” the governor vowed.
Supporters say the efforts will help unite communities in providing better access to the resources needed to help solve potential crimes and find answers for families.
The Legislature appropriated $1 million for the hiring and training of one or more specialists and another $1 million to implement an online portal for electronically cataloging missing persons cases.
The New Mexico Indian Affairs Department has cited jurisdictional issues as one of the hurdles in addressing the crisis of missing and slain Native Americans. The agency has noted that in New Mexico, there are over 100 law enforcement agencies, over a dozen prosecutorial entities, and 23 sovereign tribes.
In some parts of the state, officials have said the jurisdictional checkerboard affects response time, investigation and prosecution of missing Indigenous persons cases. They have said coordination and oversight are needed to improve the outcome for Native Americans.
A related bill signed by Lujan Grisham creates an annual “missing in New Mexico event” at which federal, state, local and tribal governments will come together to help families in filing missing persons reports. Families also would be able to update missing persons reports, submit DNA records or meet with investigators.
As of January, there were 946 active missing persons and 20 unidentified persons reported across New Mexico in the National Crime Information Center. However, advocates have long said the total number of missing or slain Indigenous people is unknown partly because federal databases do not contain comprehensive information.
A report by the Urban Indian Health Institute found there were more than 5,700 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in 2016, but only 116 of those cases were logged in a U.S.
Department of Justice database. The study was limited in scope, however, because it reflected data from 71 U.S. cities not on tribal land. Albuquerque wasn’t among those cities.
The changes in New Mexico come amid heightened efforts to address the crisis at the state and federal level. Other states including California, Oregon, Washington have approved studies of the problem or more funding for tribes.
Before the bill signing, a moment of silence was observed by the crowd to honor those who are missing or have been killed. Some of their names were read aloud as family members held photographs of their loved ones and signs that called for justice.
Attorney General Hector Balderas said there are special agents in his office ready to take on the new charge and that his office has met with the FBI about moving forward. He acknowledged that the families present Thursday have been on a journey of tragedy and pain and that the state is ready to walk with them.
“This is a day of hope,” he told them.