This story is produced by the Indigenous Investigative Collective, a project of the Native American Journalists Association in partnership with High Country News, Indian Country Today, National Native News and Searchlight New Mexico. It was produced in partnership with MuckRock with the support of JSK-Big Local News. In May of 2020, the Navajo Nation reported one of the highest per-capita COVID-19 infection rates in the United States. Since that milestone, official data reveals that the Navajo Nation has been one of the hardest-hit populations during the pandemic. The Navajo Nation boasts the largest population of any Indigenous nation in the United States, and thousands of Navajos live outside the nation, in towns along the border, cities across the country, and in other parts of the world, making it difficult to tally the virus’ impacts on Navajo citizens.
ANTHONY, N.M. — Josh Jasso stood among mounds of greenery in an otherwise parched expanse, squinting at the fields of La Semilla Community Farm. “We’re feeling smaller and smaller in our fractured landscape,” said Jasso, the farm manager at La Semilla, which is located on a stretch of highway in Anthony, a speck in the Chihuahuan Desert along the Texas state line. Its 14 acres are hemmed in by a railyard owned by an El Paso-based gravel company, a young pecan farm and fields of alfalfa. This story was originally published by Searchlight New Mexico and is reprinted with permission. Roughly 24 miles to the south, a rumble of semitrucks crosses the U.S.-Mexico border, carrying tons of freight from one side to the other.
The New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department has fired two high-level employees who raised concerns about the agency’s practice of encrypting and summarily destroying records. A Searchlight New Mexico investigation has found that over the past year, the CYFD used the secure text messaging app Signal to discuss a wide range of official business, including the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the care of children in state custody and concerns about private contractors. Department leadership then set many of those communications to automatically delete, rendering them forever inaccessible to attorneys, members of the public and journalists. Searchlight also found that the Office of the Governor and the state’s Department of Information Technology supported the systematic deletion of messages, according to emails and policy guidance obtained through an Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA) request. Legal experts warn that it is likely to impede investigations into the agency, cripple the ability of attorneys to represent children in state custody, and could violate the New Mexico Public Records Act’s rules on retention of documents.
LAS VEGAS, N.M. — A loud bass beat vibrated through the air in the kitchen of The Skillet, but line cook Kyle Conway worked in silence. The 18-year-old, a big kid with the suggestion of a mustache, spiralized potatoes into ribbon fries, dumped breaded green chile into bubbling oil and assembled hamburgers hour after hour in the busy back room of the small restaurant. “Things aren’t handed to you in life,” Conway said during a short break. “You have to work for the things you want.”
Conway wants a better future for his city of Las Vegas. Growing up there, he saw how few options young people had.
Since last year, the department tasked with overseeing foster care and child welfare in New Mexico has been encrypting and routinely deleting its communications, making much of its work essentially untraceable.
The leadership of the Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) has directed staff to use Signal, a secure communication app, and has set chats to automatically delete. In contrast to standard text messages or emails — which could be accessed by attorneys, reporters and members of the public under the state’s open records laws — messages sent via Signal are all but impossible to retrieve. Once deleted, virtually no trace of a Signal conversation remains, even on the company’s server. Attorneys and child advocates say the practice likely violates state open-records laws and could hamper any investigation into the department, which has been subject to lawsuits and massive criticism for its management of the foster-care system.
Records of employee communications have been central to journalists’ coverage of state agencies, including Searchlight New Mexico’s 2018 investigation of abuse within the foster care system.
“You can’t just encrypt and automatically delete communications between state employees,” said Melanie Majors, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government. “That’s no different than putting official documents in the shredder at the end of every day.”
“Improper destruction of public records is a fourth-degree felony,” she added.
In an interview with Searchlight, CYFD Secretary Brian Blalock said the department began using Signal near the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
ByWufei Yu and Ed Williams, Searchlight New Mexico |
Last year, Dineh Benally, the former president of San Juan River Farm Board in the Navajo Nation, oversaw the transformation of 400 acres of cropland into illegal marijuana farms across the Shiprock chapter in the northeast corner of the reservation. Despite a state, federal and tribal crackdown on the operation, multiple sources told Searchlight New Mexico and High Country News that he is attempting to establish new cannabis ventures in other Native communities. A source confirmed the same to Navajo Times. This story was originally published in Searchlight New Mexico and High Country News and is republished with permission. Since the November raids, Navajo Nation Police Chief Philip Francisco told Searchlight New Mexico and High Country News that law enforcement did not know Benally’s whereabouts and presumed he was in hiding.
ALBUQUERQUE — Nearly every day for the past ten months, Lina, 23, has worked as a personal care assistant for Lisa Langrehr, a 60-year-old woman who is paralyzed on her right side. It’s been a full-time job for Lina — from 8 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon, seven days a week, she’s helped Langrehr take showers, accompanied her to and from medical appointments, paid the bills, done the laundry, walked Blacky the dachshund, and cooked meatloaf and enchiladas.
“Without caregivers, I don’t survive, I don’t survive at all,” Langrehr said. She’s been receiving in-home care services since 2013, when she fell in her kitchen and broke her neck. A cadre of three caregivers work in shifts, paid for through Medicaid. Lina, who requested her last name not be published to protect future employment opportunities, usually made about $800 every two weeks.
ByEd Williams and Wufei Yu, Searchlight New Mexico |
MONTEREY PARK, Calif. — Irving Lin, a jovial entrepreneur in his late 60’s, wanted to share a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a near-miraculous way out of the economic devastation wrought on Southern California’s Chinese communities by the pandemic: the gift of marijuana. “We are making a fortune in Oklahoma, and you can too,” Lin, speaking in Mandarin, told a crowd of 30 potential investors gathered for a PowerPoint presentation at a Chinese cultural center on Dec. 5. The return on investment is as high as 1,200 percent, Lin explained eagerly.
Rodney Applewhite, 25, was driving through New Mexico late last week on his way to Arizona to spend Thanksgiving with his mother and other family members.
Just outside of Los Lunas, on the last leg of a trip that started in South Bend, Indiana, a New Mexico State Police officer attempted to pull Applewhite over for what was described as a traffic stop. It was 8:32 a.m., a NMSP press release said. About 10 minutes later, two state troopers tried to arrest Applewhite. When an altercation occurred with the first officer, the second officer shot Applewhite, firing “at least one round,” the NMSP said. Applewhite, unarmed, died that day in the hospital.
LAS VEGAS, N.M. — “I don’t like school, because it’s not real,” declared Colin Atman, age 6. The first-grader had a good point. Before the pandemic, Colin could dash around his Las Vegas school playground with his friends James and Damian, playing tag or a game called zombie. “I was, of course, more into zombie,” he clarified.
That all screeched to a halt in March, when COVID-19 arrived in New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham halted in-person education, and Colin had to switch to virtual learning. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, he was still running around, with his hair gelled into a 4-inch mohawk and wearing a T-shirt decorated with glowing green skeletons.