Photo courtesy Dept of the Interior

Several weeks ago, a woman in her 20’s who was from a local tribal community and was living in Albuquerque went out for a night with friends. But her night took a turn for the worse.  

Alone and in need of help getting home, she called her friends around 3am looking for a ride. Her friends did go to help her but only found her car. There was no sign of their friend for two days. Family organized and searched the area on their own. They searched the hospitals, the jail, and finally the morgue. They later discovered the woman was the victim of a hit-and-run on a dark Saturday night on Central Avenue, past 98th Street. A truck driver turned himself in several hours later. With a family devastated, the trucking company offered to pay funeral expenses.

Stories such as this one are not new and are one of the many reasons advocates pushed for a task force to solve an ongoing problem of missing indigenous people going largely unnoticed. Many advocates are pointing to instances such as the recent one on Albuquerque’s Westside as an example of why a now disbanded task force was folded prematurely.  

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration in 2021 created the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives (MMIWR) Task Force and a plan of action.                                                                                                                                         The executive order states: “The New Mexico Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives Task Force (the “Task Force”) is created to develop a state response plan addressing systemic changes that support prevention, reporting, and investigation of MMIWR incidents.”

The task force, made up of dozens of representatives from around the state, successfully created that response plan and created movement amongst the multiple agencies, organizations and stakeholders working on MMIW issues. For a time, there was real progress at hand. More than ever, people were becoming more aware of the issues surrounding MMIW in their state—and one that continually ranks among the top for MMIW cases in the country. Federal agencies were listening and finally making initiatives and creating full-blown new department offices to look into this issue.

The FBI finally stopped giving their favorite line: That they were not in the business of finding missing persons. Their agency actually helped to create one of the few multistate missing persons lists specifically focused on Native peoples in the country. The Albuquerque Police Department was attending meetings, stating they would provide the public with an MMIWR point person.  The New Mexico State Police had an officer assigned to work with the task force; for once, families were starting to get answers.

At a summit in January 2022, rumors swirled that the task force would be ending, but no one knew any details, nor was any formal announcement made. In October, without any advanced notice, Lujan Grisham’s administration announced  the end of the task force.

Representatives from the governor’s office explained to reporters that the work was done and the task force’s mission was accomplished. Members of the group were encouraged to continue to meet unofficially, but it would be missing any sort of sanction by the state. A new legislative initiative would be needed to make the task force active again.

Earlier this month, a small, unofficial group convened inside the New Mexico Indian Affairs Office to discuss what they can do, even without the official backing from the state. Darlene Gomez, an MMIWR attorney, advocate and state task force member says she’s still unclear how things are supposed to move forward.

“The plan, the plan, the plan. I asked them to be transparent, both the governor’s office and the Indian Affairs Department, as to what they’ve been doing and saying,” Gomez tells The Paper.  “All I get back is, ‘we’re implementing this plan.’”

It’s unclear exactly what the plan is or if there’s a hypothetical timeline. The Indian Affairs Department may or may not be adding new staff to work on MMIWR issues directly. Requests from The Paper. for comments were not returned by publication time. 

Gomez says she saw first-hand real progress before the task force was disbanded. Face-to-face meetings between families and law enforcement offered a level of accountability and familiarity, she says. 

“People were watching, and so I felt like things moved quicker. There was accountability in place,” Gomez says. “Now, in the last six months, my phone calls go unanswered. It seems like without that external pressure, momentum on many fronts has stalled. Even just the sharing of resources and events, less of that is shared by [the New Mexico Department of Indian Affairs Department] now.”

Gomez, like many others, is frustrated and looking for details. 

“It’s like, well, show us who you will work with? They’re like, ‘Indian Affairs works with families, advocates, and partner organizations,’” she says. “And I’m like, ‘OK, well, are they moving forward?’ Even just a final meeting, to say goodbyes and talk about strengthening relationships beyond the task force should occur.”

Whether or not that closure will occur is up in the air. The Indian Affairs Department says it still plans on hosting a “missings persons’ day” event in December, but details have yet to be finalized. This legislative session will provide more answers as to the future of the MMIWR Task Force’s work. Until then, families and advocates will continue their plans for the future, with or without the state’s backing. 

As Gomez puts it: “We are kind of starting from scratch again, it feels like. Without knowing the State’s intentions, how do we proceed?”