December 10, 2020

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives Task Force finds gaps in data

meunierd/Shutterstock

Tiffany Reid, Diné (Navajo) went missing in 2004. She was 17.

Law enforcement has still not entered her case into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), her cousin, Becky Johnson, said. Johnson is a member of the state Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives (MMIWR) Task Force established by House Bill 278 in 2019. The New Mexico Indian Affairs Department convened the task force and the group released its first report to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the public and state legislators Wednesday.

The NCIC is a system that enables law enforcement to share information across jurisdictions. Johnson said that the Navajo Nation does not have access to add names to the NCIC.

“That could help in finding her if she’s ever run across in the U.S.,” Johnson said.

That was just one example of the gaps and obstacles the task force found while conducting its research. The task force discussed its findings Wednesday over a social media platform.

The Urban Indian Health Institute found in 2017 that, as a state, New Mexico had a high number of cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. The Institute ranked Albuquerque and Gallup as being in the top ten cities with the highest numbers of cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. At the time, Albuquerque had 37 and Gallup had 25. This ranking led legislators to pass HB 278 to set up the task force.

According to the report, racial tension is generally a part of the history of border towns, which could increase the rates of crime against Native Americans.

Two county law enforcement agencies – McKinley and San Juan counties – were able to provide the task force with detailed information for the task force to analyze. The task force found that characteristics from McKinley County and San Juan County are not representative of state trends. But not all agencies were able to respond to the task force’s information requests.

Based on the data the task force was able to collect from 23 law enforcement agencies, it found that from 2014 to 2019, there were 986 missing person cases in the state. Of this, 32 cases were solved, which represents 3 percent of the total cases, according to the report.

Of the total solved, 75 percent (24 cases) were white; 16 percent (5 cases) were Native American; 6 percent (2 cases) were African-American. In one solved case the ethnicity of the missing person was unknown.

Further, 72 percent of the solved cases (23) were male. Females represented 28 percent (9) of the solved cases.

Of the unsolved cases, 655 were white. Indigenous people comprised 92 of the unsolved cases. African-Americans represented 51 of the unsolved cases.

But, the report notes, in 152 cases the ethnicity of the victim was unknown, which could mean that the number of Indigenous unsolved cases could be higher.

San Juan County had the highest number of missing persons as of late October of this year, the report states.

The task force also found that in San Juan and McKinley counties, Indigenous women and girls who go missing tend to be younger than Indigenous males who go missing. Half of the missing Indigenous women and girls in those two counties were younger than 27 years old, according to the report.

Overall, Indigenous people who go missing are younger than missing people from other racial or ethnic groups, the report states.

The task force also faced obstacles in its data collection this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. All listening sessions and in-person gatherings had to be canceled and the task force pivoted to Internet tools to gather information. But because of limited broadband access and unreliable cell phone coverage in rural parts of the state, the task force still faced challenges in communication, according to the report.

Stephanie Salazar, a member of the task force and general counsel for the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department, said that data across the state is not being collected consistently and that there is a lack of federal funding.

Phefelia Nez, First Lady of the Navajo Nation and a member of the task force, said that all tribes and pueblos should enact laws to empower criminal justice systems, enact new laws and increase advocacy to improve coordination by establishing liaison positions.

Carmela Roybal, a member of the task force, said that the numbers of murdered and missing Indigenous people, including men and boys, are “significantly higher than we ever expected.”

“We know we have some of the highest numbers of MMIWR in New Mexico,” she said.

Members of the task force heard from family members of missing or murdered Indigenous people who had not been entered into data systems, the report states.

The task force had intended to include information to show the extent to which Indigenous people have homicide rates higher than other racial and ethnic groups in the state, according to the report. But they could not gather information on the race or age for the majority of the 71 homicides reported from 2014 to 2019 by the law enforcement agencies that responded to the task force’s information requests.

Some of the issues have to do with jurisdictional problems, referred to in the report as a “multi-jurisdictional maze.” Multiple agencies – tribes or pueblos, the state and the federal government – have jurisdiction over criminal conduct on tribal land. Jurisdiction can depend on the type of crime alleged and whether an Indigenous person or non-Indigenous person is the alleged perpetrator and victim, according to the report. 

Beata Tsosie, (Santa Clara Pueblo) said tribes have “no system in place to prohibit human trafficking on tribal land.”

Imperialism that began when the Spanish invaded tribal lands centuries ago and the subsequent racism and colonialism also contributes to the problem, the report states.

Another issue are gaps in services available to victims in the form of safe houses, shelters, mental health and substance abuse treatment centers. There are also major service gaps for LGBTQ Indigenous youth and there are service gaps for youth on tribal land.

Tsosie called it “wrap around care.”

“Clearly our crisis response is severely lacking,” she said. 

The task force plans to build a clearinghouse where all of the data will be held and one of the task force’s requests of the Legislature is to be allowed to continue its work with a permanent MMIWR Task Force including a dedicated position. The task force would also like to see mandatory MMIWR reporting to the state from all law enforcement agencies.

State Department of Indian Affairs Secretary Lynn Trujillo (Sandia Pueblo) said the task force not only believes that the federal government needs to supply more funding to help Indigenous agencies that lack resources, but that funding should come from state and local governments, too. 

Task force member Christine Means, whose older sister, Dione Thomas, died of assault injuries in 2015, said there is a need for resources, training and support services. 

Means said that she is still advocating for her sister.

“Now, almost five years later, there are still no answers. We still don’t know the status of her case. I’m still working to advocate so justice can be served,” she said.