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FRI: Fire update, justice for MMIWR takes shape, fire ravaged villages cling to faith and 'querencia' to keep going, + More

Rose Yazzie approaches Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (right) after the signing ceremony for legislation on missing and murdered Indigenous women Thursday at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022.
Photo by Sharon Chischilly
Source New Mexico
Rose Yazzie approaches Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (right) after the signing ceremony for legislation on missing and murdered Indigenous women Thursday at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022.

Justice for Relatives - Shaun Griswold, Source New Mexico 

Geraldine Toya has two reasons to be hopeful.

First, she’s in the process of requesting that the Albuquerque Police Department reopen the case involving her daughter Shawna’s death.

“I feel relief that something is getting done, you know; we’re wanting to still look for justice, answers,” she said.

Second, Toya (Jemez) was in attendance on Feb. 24, 2022 for the signing of legislation that will be a first step to addressing issues of missing and murdered Indigenous people in New Mexico.

“Today’s the day that we are going to make history,” she said at the bill signing event. “We’ve been searching for this moment, to get through with what we need, we deserve it. And we’re gonna actually see it and observe it for ourselves. So it’s big, it’s a big opening for us.”

That day, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed two bills into law that are the first step in addressing the systemic issues that contribute to the MMIWR crises. The first will establish a Missing In New Mexico Day, where families like the Toya’s can share information about their case with law enforcement. The second bill will give the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office more authority to coordinate these cases between agencies and pay for investigators to work these cases exclusively.

Toya’s experience is far too common. First, she’s taking the initiative and demanding answers on her own dime. She pays for flyers, gas to visit Albuquerque and anything else required to keep her daughter’s case in front of the people that can help out one day.

A group of advocates is working with Toya and others to try to help where they can, but they are often flooded with calls from families with questions and concerns about how police and legal systems have failed their relative who was killed or has gone missing.

Many of these advocates also take part in the New Mexico MMIWR Task Force, which was established in 2019 to evaluate need and address these issues. The two bills signed into law were among their many recommendations. As federal dollars reach communities trying to find their relatives, the task force has become a model for other states beginning their own reform process.

The federal government is investing millions of dollars into communities to help with local police grants and victim services. The goal is to help people from the moment they file a police report, through their court proceedings and into counseling as they recover.

As part of the national effort, the FBI is increasing rewards for cold cases involving crimes against Native Americans. And the Violence Against Women Act was recently renewed with language that allows tribal courts to prosecute non-tribal residents for crimes committed within the tribe’s jurisdiction.

But the work is far from done.

Click here for a series of stories that show the problems identified by families, community members, advocates, law enforcement and politicians. There is a path forward, and some progress is being made by everyone involved. But it takes time and serious accountability to make a dent in a problem that is rooted in the very foundation of the United States.

Fire-ravaged New Mexico villages cling to faith, 'querencia' — Felicia Fonseca, Associated Press

Eileen Celestina Garcia raced down the mountain that overlooks her parents' ranch home in northern New Mexico where friends and family have gathered for decades and where she has sat countless times among the stillness of the Ponderosa pines.

A wildfire was raging and Garcia knew she had just minutes to reach her parents and ensure they evacuated in time. Her hands grazed the trees as she spoke to them, thinking the least she could do is offer them gratitude and prayer in case they weren't there when she returned.

"You're trying not to panic — maybe it's not real — just asking for miracles, asking for it not to affect our valley and stop," she said.

Like many New Mexico families, Garcia's is deep-rooted not only in the land but in their Catholic faith. As the largest wildfire burning in the U.S. marches across the high alpine forests and grasslands of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, many in its path have pleaded with God for intervention in the form of rain and calm winds, and protection for their neighbors and beloved landscape.

They've invoked St. Florian, the patron saint of firefighters, the Virgin Mary as the blessed mother and the various patron saints of scattered villages. The fire has marched for several weeks across more than 262 square miles (678 square kilometers), destroying dozens of homes and forcing thousands of families to evacuate.

Favorable winds recently helped firefighters, but conditions are expected to worsen over the weekend, with consecutive days of red flag warnings. Forecasters warned of potentially historic conditions.

"There's not going to be any letup in these winds," said John Pendergrast, an air resource adviser on the fire.

During trying times, the largely Hispanic working-class neighborhoods here also rely on community and the lessons of those who came before them. Simply put, it's querencia — a love of home or attachment to a place.

Some described fleeing the wildfire and imagining the faces of their neighbors in the lush valleys who they've helped with baling hay, fixing cars or harvesting firewood.

"One of my neighbors described it as seeing the mountains around us burn is really like seeing a loved one burn," said Fidel Trujillo, whose family evacuated from the tiny town of Mora. "And I don't think that's any kind of exaggeration."

Religion is infused in homes across the mountains, where crosses hang above many doors. Elected officials and fire managers frequently credited prayer when winds calmed enough to allow firefighters to get a better handle on the blaze. They prayed even more when things got tough. Some started novenas, or nine-day prayers, and encouraged family and friends to join in.

The preservation of faith in this region was somewhat out of necessity. The Spanish settled the area centuries ago, but the Catholic Church as an institution was far away. Even now, deacons and priests rotate among the mission churches for Mass or to perform sacraments. People like Trujillo and his wife serve as mayordomos, or caretakers of those churches.

Also layered on the landscape are historic Spanish land grants, large ranches, traditional irrigation systems known as acequias, and moradas, which are meeting spaces for a religious brotherhood known as penitentes.

Prayer is intertwined in everything, Trujillo says, something that was passed down through generations. His dad has marked spots along hiking trails with crosses as a reminder to "pause, pray and give thanks," Trujillo said.

By the grace of God, he said, his father-in-law's ranch house in El Carmen survived the fire, and so did his childhood home in Ledoux. He's unsure about his current residence in Mora amid a valley prized for its Christmas trees.

"Sometimes when things are beyond your control, you have to lean on that faith," Trujillo said. "That's what faith is."

For many New Mexicans, regardless of where they live, the pull back home is strong.

Felicia Ortiz, president of the Nevada board of education, recently bought 36 acres (14.5 hectares) behind one of the mission churches to maintain roots in New Mexico. The land burned, but she's hopeful some trees remain.

Nearby at her childhood home in Rociada, she remembers stomping on the dirt to make adobe bricks and peeling logs her family harvested to build a barn. She and her sister skated on a frozen pond in the yard and sledded down the hills. They watched the full moon rise over a tree next to their playhouse as her dad played "Bad Moon Rising" on vinyl.

Flames destroyed the house.

"I look at the pictures, and it looks like something out of a horror movie," Ortiz said. "The tree that I had a swing on, it's just a stick. The big piñon tree where we picked piñon, it's like palitos (little sticks) now."

Las Vegas Mayor Louie Trujillo called northern New Mexicans physically, emotionally and spiritually strong — "a breed of our own." Many residents invoked the teachings and resilient spirits of their ancestors when offering up their homes to evacuees, feeding them, rescuing animals and starting fundraisers.

Garcia and her 9-year-old son, Leoncio, took refuge during the coronavirus pandemic at her parents' ranch in Sapello and haven't left. It's where her family milked cows and made cheese to sell to neighbors. It's where she sat among the trees overlooking the valley and dreamt about going to college and helping her family.

More recently, the trees gave her the solace she needed to write a chapter in a book about female trailblazers.

When fleeing, she grabbed pictures of relatives and a bag with religious items that she carried on a 100-mile (160-kilometer) pilgrimage she organized and walked for 10 years.

"If our ranch and our trees are still there, what I keep seeing is an opportunity to offer space for healing for folks to come and sit with the trees that they've lost," she said.


Fonseca is a member of the AP's Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/FonsecaAP

Roswell police: Officer pinned against vehicle, dragged — Associated Press

A Roswell police officer was pinned against another vehicle before being dragged through an intersection, the police department said Friday.

The incident occurred Friday morning when the officer checked on an unresponsive driver of a car stopped in an intersection, a police statement said.

"The driver suddenly accelerated the car, pinning the officer against another vehicle and then dragging him through the intersection," the statement said.

The driver was in custody and the officer was taken to a hospital but was expected to be OK, the statement said.

No additional information was released.

New Mexico regulators adopt clean car rule — Associated Press

New Mexico regulators have adopted more stringent motor vehicle emissions standards as part of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's push against climate change.

The rule was adopted Thursday by the state Environmental Improvement Board following a joint public hearing with air quality officials who oversee the Albuquerque metro area, which is New Mexico's most populated region.

Following in the footsteps of California, the new rule will take effect July 1. It will require reduced emissions in cars, trucks and SUVs starting with the 2026 model year.

The state is calling for more electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles to be sold in New Mexico. Meanwhile, utility officials are still working on plans to ensure they have enough capacity to meet future electricity demands as more solar and battery storage facilities are brought online to replace coal-fired power plants.

Despite criticism by some interest groups, state officials are touting the new clean car mandate as a way to eliminate an estimated 130,000 tons of greenhouse gases and over 1,700 tons of ozone-forming pollution in the state by 2050.

Transportation is the nation's largest source of greenhouse gases and among the top sources in New Mexico.

Environmentalists praised the rule, saying it will boost the number of electric vehicles available for sale in New Mexico. They also project that charging vehicles will save drivers in fuel costs over the next three decades.

The rule is part of the state and city of Albuquerque's respective ozone attainment initiatives. State officials say seven counties — including Bernalillo County — are nearing problematic ground-level ozone levels, which cause respiratory illnesses and heart attacks.

Some auto dealers have said they shouldn't be mandated to carry a certain volume of electric cars, and other critics have raised concerns about whether electric vehicles could pose financial hardship for rural residents.

State officials have said the rule will not affect existing vehicles, used vehicles for sale, farm equipment or other off-road vehicles or heavy-duty vehicles such as semi trucks.

Fire crews close in around massive New Mexico wildfire - Associated Press

Firefighters in New Mexico continue to take advantage of diminished winds Friday with more fire lines and clear combustible brush near homes close to the fringes of the largest wildfire burning in the U.S. They did so ahead of what is expected to be several consecutive days of intense hot, dry and extremely windy weather that could fan the blaze.

"The conditions were kind of moderated," Dan Pearson, a fire behavior analyst, said during a largely hopeful evening update by the U.S. Forest Service and law enforcement officials.

But Pearson warned that starting Saturday, clear skies will bring more intense solar heat accompanied by 30 mph winds with days of high winds to follow.

The fire has marched across 258 square miles of high alpine forest and grasslands at the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains, destroying dozens of homes and prompting evacuations for thousands of families, many of whom have called the Sangre de Cristo Mountains home since their Spanish ancestors first settled the region centuries ago.

President Joe Biden approved a disaster declaration that brings new financial resources to the areas devastated by fire since early April. The aid includes grants for temporary housing and low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other relief programs for people and businesses.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham traveled through northern New Mexico Wednesday and Thursday to survey the damage and chat with affected residents at a humanitarian kitchen, an evacuation shelter and an elementary school.

The start of the conflagration has been traced in part to a preventive fire initiated by the U.S. Forest Service to reduce flammable vegetation. The blaze escaped control, merging with another wildfire of unknown origin.

U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, who accompanied Lujan on a helicopter flight to view affected areas and meet with fire officials, on Thursday pressed a top Forest Service official to fully investigate the decision to start the "controlled burn" and disclose whether the agency considered the effects of climate change and a mega-drought afflicting western states.

"What protocols or controls were in place to make sure a controlled burn does not get out of hand? Did the U.S. Forest Service follow these protocols," the congresswoman wrote to Forest Service Chief Randy Moore.

Evacuations that have now lasted weeks have taken a physical and emotional toll on residents. Classes were canceled at area schools for the week, some businesses in the small northeastern city of Las Vegas have closed due to staff shortages and some customers of the electric cooperative that serves surrounding areas have had no power for weeks.

San Miguel County Sheriff Chris Lopez said firetrucks, a fleet of aircraft and other equipment have been brought in to the area to corral the flames and "we're ready for anything that does come."

But it's still too soon to let people return to outlying areas that burned earlier because there are pockets of unburned brush and trees that can serve as fuel for the blaze within the fire's perimeter.

"We've come to this crossroads on a few different occasions, where we were feeling good about it and we come up to a wind event and it hasn't went as planned," Lopez said.

Relatively calm and cool weather in recent days has helped firefighters to keep the fire in check around its shifting fronts.

Bulldozers scraped more fire lines Thursday while crews conducted controlled burning to to clear vegetation and prevent it from igniting. Aircraft also dropped more fire retardant in preparation for the heavy winds predicted this weekend.

Gusts up to 45 mph are expected Saturday afternoon along with above-normal temperatures and "abysmally low" humidity that make for extreme fire danger, said Todd Shoemake, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Albuquerque. "Sunday and Monday are probably looking to be even worse."

Nearly 1,300 firefighters and other personnel were assigned to fight the fire, while about 2,000 wildland firefighters are battling other blazes elsewhere in New Mexico and around the U.S.

Officials at Los Alamos National Laboratory were warily tracking another wildfire that crept within about 5 miles of facilities at the U.S. nuclear research complex.

Wildfires have become a year-round threat in the drought-stricken West — moving faster and burning hotter than ever due to climate change, according to scientists and fire experts. Fire officials also point to overgrown areas where vegetation can worsen wildfire conditions.

US panel to focus on Native American missing, slain cases - By Susan Montoya Bryan And Felicia Fonseca Associated Press

Nearly 40 law enforcement officials, tribal leaders, social workers and survivors of violence have been named to a federal commission tasked with helping improve how the government addresses a decades-long crisis of missing and murdered Native Americans and Alaska Natives, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced Thursday.

The committee's creation means that for the first time, the voices guiding the Interior and Justice departments in the effort will include people most affected by the epidemic, said Haaland, the first Native American to lead a cabinet department.

She said the panel includes members with diverse experiences and backgrounds, representing communities from Alaska and Washington to Arizona, Oklahoma and Michigan. It will craft recommendations on how the government can better tackle a disproportionately high number of unsolved cases in which Native Americans and Alaska Natives have disappeared or been killed.

"It will take a focused effort — and time — to unravel the many threads that contribute to the alarming rates of these cases," Haaland said during a virtual event.

Some members of Congress have expressed concern that work to address the crisis as required under the law isn't on track. In the case of appointing members to the commission, federal officials are more than a year behind schedule.

The Not Invisible Act, signed into law in October 2020, required that the commission be named by February 2021 and that findings be made public last month.

Another law signed around the same time directed the U.S. Attorney General's Office to find ways to increase cooperation among law enforcement agencies, provide tribes resources and address data collection. Savanna's Act was named for 22-year-old Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, who went missing while pregnant in 2017 before her body was found in a North Dakota River.

U.S. Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, who faces a tough reelection campaign; Jon Tester of Montana; and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the vice-chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, outlined their concerns in a letter earlier this week.

"Both of these laws outlined specific time frames and deadlines for implementation; however, it is unclear which provisions have been undertaken, and it appears that almost every deadline has been missed," the lawmakers wrote.

Deputy U.S. Attorney General Lisa Monaco said Thursday the naming of the commission marks a major milestone that follows ongoing work by a separate steering committee to marshal more federal resources to address the problem.

She also announced the creation of a new position within the executive office of U.S. attorneys that will be responsible for working with victims and families to ensure they have a voice while navigating the criminal justice system.

Federal officials also plugged work being done by the FBI and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which now has 17 offices across the country that have at least one agent dedicated to solving casing involving missing or slain Native Americans.

As for the 37-member commission, its mission includes tracking and reporting data on missing-person, homicide and human trafficking cases and increasing information sharing with tribal governments on violent crimes investigations and other prosecutions on Indian lands.

The commission is expected to hold hearings and gather testimony before making recommendations to the Interior and Justice departments to improve coordination among agencies and to establish best practices for state, tribal and federal law enforcement. The panel also is tasked with boosting resources for survivors and victims' families.

Meanwhile, some communities already have created their own response plans to address the problem. In New Mexico, officials on Thursday rolled out the state's plan, highlighting goals that include building more support services for survivors and families, doing more outreach on education and prevention and leveraging resources for tribal judicial systems.

Fawn Sharp, president of the tribal advocacy group National Congress of American Indians, said during Thursday's virtual event that although funding for law enforcement in Indian Country has increased in recent years, it doesn't come close to meeting the needs.

She pointed to research showing that failure to provide funding undermined the ability to provide adequate public safety in tribal communities.

"Having the authority to hold perpetrators accountable is an important first step, but tribal nations cannot follow through to hold bad actors accountable without adequate and consistent funding for tribal justice systems," she said.

Other advocates said they were hopeful the federal commission's recommendations will cover the need for safe housing for victims of domestic violence and other social services and health care that could help prevent violence.

New Mexico seeks opportunity in Texas border disruptions - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico is highlighting its support for proposals that would route an international rail line through its Santa Teresa border crossing, capitalizing on Mexico's unease with disruptions along the Texas portion of the U.S. border with Mexico.

Mexico had considered a route through Texas, but in recent days officials have said they can no longer rely on that state. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, in April required all commercial trucks from Mexico to undergo extra inspections, tying up traffic and causing millions in losses.

The administration of Democratic New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Wednesday that it will send a delegation of economic development and transportation officials to Mexico City next week to explore opportunities to expand commercial infrastructure at the San Jeronimo-Santa Teresa crossing, about 20 miles west of El Paso, Texas.

New Mexico Economic Development Secretary Alicia Keyes said the state has already requested a U.S. presidential permit for a rail bypass route through Santa Teresa. Separately, she said a study on expanding infrastructure at the New Mexico crossing is near completion.

She said recent disruptions at Texas crossings change the outlook for Santa Teresa.

"They have issues with pollution and wait times and security," Keyes said of Texas' border entry points. "We have the opportunity to really envision what a dignified port of entry would look like."

Mexico's Economy Secretary Tatiana Clouthier was more forceful last week on the fate of a proposed rail line linking the Pacific coast port of Mazatlan in Mexico's Sinaloa state with the U.S. and Canada.

"I don't think we're going to use Texas anymore because we cannot put all our eggs in one basket and be held hostage to those who want to use trade as a political issue," Clouthier told a business conference. "We are going to look for another connection point."

Mexican diplomats followed up Tuesday in Washington with U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas and touted a rail line linking Mexican seaports on the Pacific with the San Jeronimo-Santa Teresa crossing in New Mexico.

Some truckers have reported waiting more than 30 hours to cross during the Texas state inspections. Others blocked one of the world's busiest trade bridges in protest.

Abbott, who is up for reelection in November and has made the border his top issue, fully lifted the inspections after reaching agreements with neighboring Mexican states that outline new commitments to border security.