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WED: Suspect in Albuquerque Muslim killings denies involvement, More

Alice Fordham

Suspect in Albuquerque Muslim killings denies involvement - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Stefanie Dazio And Mariam Fam Associated Press

A fear of attacks that had rippled through Muslim communities nationwide after the fatal shootings of four men in Albuquerque, New Mexico, gave way to shock and sadness when it turned out the suspect in the killings was himself a Muslim.

Muhammad Syed, 51, of Albuquerque, was arrested Monday after a traffic stop more than 100 miles from his Albuquerque home. The Afghan immigrant denied any connection to the crimes that shook the city and its small Muslim community.

In court documents, in fact, he told police that he was so unnerved by the slayings that he was driving to Houston to find a new home for his family.

But investigators say they have ample evidence to prove his guilt, though they have yet to uncover the motive. The first ambush-style shooting happened in November and was followed by three more between July 26 and Aug. 5.

According to the criminal complaint, police determined that bullet casings found in Syed's vehicle matched the caliber of the weapons believed to have been used in two of the killings and that casings found at the crime scenes were linked to guns found at Syed's home and in his vehicle.

Of the more than 200 tips police received, it was one from the Muslim community that led them to the Syed family, authorities said, noting that Syed knew the victims and "an interpersonal conflict may have led to the shootings."

The news of Syed's arrest stunned Muslims in Albuquerque.

"I wanted a little closure for the community, as we saw it going out of hand and people were really panicking, but, I'll be honest with you, I was shocked," said Samia Assed, a community organizer and member of the Islamic Center of New Mexico.

"I was angry, frustrated," Assed said, adding that she did not want "these heinous crimes to be in any way, in any capacity used to divide a community." But she also said that the Muslim community in New Mexico is "going to have a more united front."

Prosecutors on Wednesday filed a motion to detain Syed without bond pending trial. "He is a very dangerous person, and the only way to protect the community is to hold the defendant in custody," they said.

Authorities seized a 9 mm handgun from his vehicle and found an AK-47-style rifle and a pistol of the same caliber at the family home while serving a search warrant, according to court documents, which indicate the weapons were legally purchased last month. Syed bought the rifle, and his son Shaheen Syed purchased the pistol, at a local gun shop.

On Wednesday, Shaheen Syed was charged by federal prosecutors with providing a false Florida address when he bought two rifles last year. He has denied any role in the killings and has not been charged in connection with them.

Muhammad Syed has lived in the United States for about five years, police said. When interviewed by detectives, Syed spoke through a Pashto interpreter and said he had been with the special forces in Afghanistan and fought against the Taliban, the criminal complaint said.

Police say they are looking at a number of possible motives. When asked at a news conference Tuesday if Syed, a Sunni Muslim, was angry that his daughter married a Shiite Muslim, Deputy Police Cmdr. Kyle Hartsock did not respond directly. He said "motives are still being explored fully to understand what they are."

Ahmad Assed, president of the Islamic Center of New Mexico, on Tuesday acknowledged that "there was a marriage," but he cautioned against coming to any conclusions about the motivation of the suspect, who occasionally attended the center's mosque.

CNN interviewed Syed's daughter shortly before the announcement of his arrest. She said her husband was friends with two of the men who were killed. She also acknowledged her father initially was upset about her 2018 marriage but recently had been more accepting.

"My father is not a person who can kill somebody," the woman told CNN, which did not disclose her identity to protect her safety. "My father has always talked about peace. That's why we are here in the United States. We came from Afghanistan, from fighting, from shooting."

In 2017, a boyfriend of Syed's daughter reported to police that Syed, his wife and one of their sons had pulled him out of a car, punching and kicking him before driving away, according to court documents. The boyfriend, who was found with a bloody nose, scratches and bruises, told police that he was attacked because they did not want her in a relationship with him.

Syed was arrested in May 2018 after a fight with his wife turned violent, court documents said. Prosecutors said both cases were later dismissed after the victims declined to press charges.

Syed also was arrested in 2020 after he was accused of refusing to pull over for police after running a traffic light, but that case was eventually dismissed, court documents said.

The Albuquerque slayings drew the attention of President Joe Biden, who said such attacks "have no place in America." They also sent a shudder through Muslim communities across the U.S. Some people questioned their safety and limited their movements.

"There is no justification for this evil. There is no justification to take an innocent life," Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American–Islamic Relations, said at a Tuesday news conference in Washington, D.C. He called the killings "deranged behavior."

The earliest case involves the November killing of Mohammad Ahmadi, 62, from Afghanistan.

Naeem Hussain, a 25-year-old man from Pakistan, was killed last Friday. His death came just days after those of Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, 27, and Aftab Hussein, 41, who were also from Pakistan and members of the same mosque.

Investigators consider Syed to be the primary suspect in the deaths of Naeem Hussain and Ahmadi but have not yet filed charges in those cases.

Ehsan Chahalmi, the brother-in-law of Naeem Hussain, said he was "a generous, kind, giving, forgiving and loving soul that has been taken away from us forever."

Police said they were about to search Syed's Albuquerque home on Monday when they saw him drive away in a Volkswagen Jetta that investigators believe was used in at least one of the slayings.


Dazio reported from Los Angeles and Fam from Winter Park, Florida. Associated Press writer Robert Jablon in Los Angeles and researchers Rhonda Shafner and Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed to this report.

New Mexico facing a long fight after a Texas utility spews sewage into the Rio Grande – By Megan Gleason, Source New Mexico

It will likely be a while before New Mexico officials know whether an El Paso utility will have to pay up for dumping sewage into the Rio Grande. Procedural rules and a fight over jurisdiction are drawing out the process.

The New Mexico Water Quality Commission met on Tuesday to discuss future hearings regarding the $1.2 million fine and other penalties, including cleanup demands, that N.M. issued to the El Paso Water Utilities Public Service Board.

Starting about a year ago and lasting for months, El Paso Water diverted untreated sewage to the Rio Grande in Texas because broken pipelines could’ve spewed the sewage directly into communities. Between 6 and 10 million gallons of wastewater were dumped into the river every day from August 2021 to January 2022, according to the N.M. Environment Department, and the waste drifted into the city of Sunland Park in New Mexico.

A couple of months ago, NMED issued a fine to El Paso Water, called for additional remediation and also sought assurances that it won’t happen again. In addition, the state requested a copy of the utility’s cleanup plan after El Paso Water finished cleaning the Rio Grande in May 2022 with the stipulation that N.M. can request further action still.

“El Paso Water’s flagrant disregard for the health and welfare of New Mexicans in Sunland is astonishing,” N.M. Environment Secretary James Kenney said in the June news release announcing the fine.

Officials said the utility hadn’t notified New Mexico of the discharge, which is illegal. El Paso Water’s CEO disputed the allegation, El Paso Matters reported.

But the utility is challenging New Mexico’s authority to issue penalties or require more cleanup since the discharge originated in Texas. Utility representatives said in a filing with the Water Quality Commission Board that the Texas state government or the federal government have jurisdiction over this matter.

Because of that hang-up — and other procedural rules — the attorneys don’t expect a resolution any time soon. There isn’t yet much of a timeline, either.

Usually, a hearing must be held within 90 days after a request is made to the Water Quality Control Commission, but the commission waived that requirement after both parties requested more time. Chair Stephanie Stringer must also choose a hearing officer to oversee the process.

Two separate hearing requests — one for groundwater and one for surface water — could be condensed into one, both legal camps agree.

Commissioner Bruce Thomson said he was confused about why the matter was before the Water Quality Control Commission since it seems like a legal issue for the courts to decide, but the lawyer representing New Mexico said administrative processes must unfold before the state engages in any kind of lawsuit.

“In the first instance, we start with an administrative enforcement action,” attorney Andrew Knight said. “And depending on the outcome of that, we may or may not see the need to proceed to court action.”

But El Paso Water’s lawyer Thomas Hnasko said it’s likely that there will be simultaneous court action on the consequences of the pollution.

“We had no choice but to answer a request to hearing, so we tend to go through this process and respect this process as well,” Hnasko said. “But we do think there will be some relative issues in both the court proceeding and in this proceeding.”

Pueblo Leaders decry ‘violence’ against cultural sites, including Bandelier National Monument kiva - By Nash Jones, KUNM News

Pueblo leaders are speaking out against damage done to a kiva at the Bandelier National Monument.

In a statement released Wednesday, the All Pueblo Council of Governors, which represents New Mexico’s 20 pueblos, said the National Park Service notified the group of vandalism in late July. The leaders pushed back on the agency’s characterization of the damage, saying — rather than vandalism — they see it as an “act of human violence to our current living cultures.”

The council said it collectively condemns the act and called on the public to “cease desecrating our beloved traditional cultural properties.”

According to the statement, this marks the fifth time this year a Pueblo cultural property in the Jemez mountains and near the Caja Del Rio has been targeted.

The governors said, in the short-term, they want a full investigation into this most recent incident. Longer term, they’d like to see the federal government strengthen its policies and procedures to help prevent such damage from continuing.

Driver arrested in floodwaters death of passenger near Mora  — Associated Press

A Guadalupita man has been arrested for driving a pickup truck into floodwaters in Mora, allegedly leading to the death of his passenger, authorities said Tuesday.

New Mexico State Police said 30-year-old John Vasquez has been booked into the San Miguel County jail on suspicion of vehicular homicide while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and fleeing an accident with knowledge of death or great bodily harm.

Police say officers received a call Sunday about witnesses seeing a pickup truck being swept away by floodwaters.

Rescue personnel say Vasquez exited the vehicle and received first aid for minor injuries.

The truck was later recovered with the body of 64-year-old Benjamin Torres of Guadalupita inside and he was pronounced dead at the scene, police said.

Police said officers questioned Vasquez at his home and he allegedly admitted to drinking alcohol before driving the truck into the floodwaters.

It was unclear Tuesday if Vasquez has an attorney yet who can speak on his behalf about the case.

'El Jefe' the jaguar, famed in US, photographed in Mexico — Maria Verza, Associated Press

They call him "El Jefe," he is at least 12 years old and his crossing of the heavily guarded U.S.-Mexico border has sparked celebrations on both sides.

"El Jefe" — or "The Boss" — is one of the oldest jaguars on record along the frontier, one of few known to have crossed a border partly lined by a wall and other infrastructure to stop drug traffickers and migrants, and the one believed to have traveled the farthest, say ecologists of the Borderlands Linkages Initiative, a binational collaboration of eight conservation groups.

That assessment is based on photographs taken over the years. Jaguars can be identified by their spots, which serve as a kind of unique fingerprint.

The rare northern jaguar's ability to cross the border suggests that despite increased impediments, there are still open corridors and if they are kept open "it is feasible (to conserve) the jaguar population in the long term," said Juan Carlos Bravo of the Wildlands Network, one of those groups in the initiative.

But some fear for the jaguars' future. Although it was the government of President Donald Trump that reinforced and expanded the border wall with Mexico, the Biden administration has announced plans for closing four gaps between the U.S. state of Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora — the two states the jaguars traverse.

Conservationists do not know how many jaguars there are in the Sierra Madre Occidental, but of the 176 that have been identified over two decades by the Northern Jaguar Project — another group in the initiative — only two others besides "El Jefe" are known to have crossed the border, Bravo said. In one case, conservationists are not sure if the jaguar crossed the border alive or dead since only its skin was found.

The first photograph of "El Jefe" was taken by a hunter southeast of Tucson, Arizona, in 2011, Bravo said. The jaguar became famous in Arizona and a local school named him "El Jefe." Motion sensor cameras installed in transit areas photographed the jaguar in Arizona again in 2012 and in 2015.

Conservationists were stunned when they confirmed that a photograph taken by another member of the coalition, Profauna, last November in the center of Sonora was "El Jefe." The discovery meant not only that jaguars could still cross the border but that other jaguars they had lost track of could also still be alive, the initiative said in a statement.

Hunted in the southwestern United States for rewards offered by the government to promote cattle ranching, they were thought to have disappeared from the U.S. by the end of the 20th century. Jaguar populations are currently concentrated on Mexico's Pacific coast, southeastern Mexico, Central America and central South America.

A sighting of jaguars in the United States in 1996 prompted studies that found a reproductive point in the center of Sonora.

The NGOs banded together to operate on both sides of the border to track the cats, create sanctuaries, understand where they moved and seek the support of landowners in the U.S. and Mexico to protect them, Bravo said.

Besides the difficulty of determining where to put cameras to record the animals and the subsequent analysis of the images, conservationists in Mexico face another problem: drug cartels.

"There is a presence of armed groups and drug traffickers" who pass through the same isolated areas as the jaguars, Bravo said by telephone from Sonora. "It is important to move carefully, work with the people in the communities that tell us where not to go. ... All of this is making it very, very complicated."

The border is the main challenge for hopes to repopulate the American Southwest with jaguars, with walls impeding movement by those animals as well as the American antelope, the black bear and the Mexican wolf, Bravo said. Light towers and the roads used by the Border Patrol also are a problem, he added.