Wednesday, March 22, 2023
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Interior Dept. Creates Missing and Murdered Task Force

Search for Indigenous Victims Brings Changes Nationally and Locally


MMIWR. Missing Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives. It is both interesting and saddening that this is a phrase that has entered our everyday lexicon. The one positive aspect of this being the concerted rise in public awareness to the long-ignored issue of Indigenous women dying from violence or missing at unheard-of rates compared to the rest of the world. Even the Trump administration, in a futile attempt for bi-partisanship or votes or whatever—it makes no difference now—created its own task force through Operation Lady Justice, housed in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. So what may have initially been seen as "too little too late" by the previous administration may have inadvertently given Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland the open door for big changes at the federal level regarding MMIWR.

What a Difference a Year Makes

A year ago when Deb Haaland was a representative, she found an issue with Trump's plan due to the lack of representation of tribal and ground-level appointees. We now stand a little over a year from that moment and the small stream of light Trump cast through the door has created the opportunity to be blown wide open. What amazing serendipity. On April 1 Secretary Haaland announced a Missing and Murdered Unit was going to be created within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services. These plans also build on Operation Lady Justice's previous initiative by providing the full office staffing, including a unit chief responsible for continued policy development and performance. The Interior Department secretary said in a statement, “The new MMU unit will provide the resources and leadership to prioritize these cases and coordinate resources to hold people accountable, keep our communities safe and provide closure for families.”

Only In New Mexico

The State of New Mexico's MMIWR Task Force got off to a great start in 2019 with an appropriation of $100,000 to create and fund an MMIWR study. This appropriation was meant to fund the task force through June 2021. The plan was that if work still needed to be accomplished, the task force would seek additional support through 2022. Slam dunk right? What better political climate to make this happen in. Instead, it was tabled in the finance committee. So there it was, it seemed, left on the cutting room floor with cage-free eggs and the time change legislation.

"There was a lot of support, but in House Finance, there were questions about if the money being requested was in the House budget," said Stephanie Salazar, general counsel for N.M. Indian Affairs Dept. "The timing was off a bit since budget proposals came prior to the task force report being finalized." Had the bill gone forward without a budget recommendation, there would have been issues, so the task force allowed the bill to be tabled, hoping for a different opportunity. That opportunity came thanks to Senator Benny Shendo and HB 377, with an appropriation of $57,600 provided to the Department of Indian Affairs to continue the MMIWR task force report through 2022.

Salazar is hopeful for the future of the task force, "We hope to in the next month announce new avenues of getting these changes implemented and extending our initial June 30 deadline." Extending the time frame is crucial at this stage for the task force. They would like to make the New Mexico Department of Safety a bigger player in the task force as well.

New Mexico State Police Captain Troy Velasquez was a vital partner in the task force's initial work, providing much-needed details into how operations work and even helped draft portions of the final report data. But he has been re-assigned, and Major Javier Moncada is the new member. Major Moncada is being brought up to speed and ensures that the NMSP will still play a significant role. "We just felt that it was important hearing more from the State Police upon implementing these recommendations. We needed them to take more of a leadership role in helping us navigate issues that arise." Salazar said.

The Prep Work Has Just Begun

This shoring up of resources and structure is essential in the new post-Trump, Deb Haaland-era landscape. There are only four states the federal task force specifically focused on MMIWR cases in the United States: Wisconsin, New Mexico, Alaska and Minnesota. Canada has also launched a task force called the Canadian National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Girls and Women. With new resources coming from the federal level, those states and tribes that have set up working relationships and structural leadership will be the first to receive help, setting a precedent for how effective these initiatives will be. The feds can only do so much from Washington. They need relationships with those on the ground to make a working change. New Mexico Indian Affairs Secretary Lynn Trujillo told The Paper. "This new unit will bring additional resources and leadership to prioritize this crisis and expand collaboration and coordination among various agencies and stakeholders. With the creation of this new unit, we see an opportunity to bring peace and healing to our relatives who have been impacted by this crisis.”

So in reality, the New Mexico MMIWR Task Force's real heavy lifting has only just begun. Members will continue to gather data, make recommendations to state agencies and help foster relationships with the new Missing Murdered Unit office. But most importantly, they need to gather community stakeholders and understand the ground-level needs—not just legal, but emotional, physical and psychological.

All this talk about money and appropriations is great. It helps fund the tangible things that cost money in this world to make things happen. Even task forces and research reports cost money. But what doesn't cost money is being conscious of what is happening in your community and getting involved. Use that MMIWR vocabulary when possible, educate someone on this issue. Turn that sliver of light they tossed our way into a lighthouse of justice.


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