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MON: State starts monthslong process to get debris out of acequias near the Gila, + More

Work gets done to remove debris from a culvert in Mimbres. Pictured on Feb. 21, 2023.
Megan Gleason
Source NM
Work gets done to remove debris from a culvert in Mimbres. Pictured on Feb. 21, 2023.

State starts monthslong process to get debris out of acequias near the Gila - By Megan Gleason, Source New Mexico

In a few months, some acequias in southern New Mexico will finally be free of debris. The work to get that done starts today.

During fall 2022, floods that came after the Black Fire in the Gila pushed debris down rivers, blocking up irrigation systems that need to have water flowing for farmers and ranchers to use in the spring.

The New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management teamed up with the Interstate Stream Commission to set aside funds so state workers could help remove all the debris. The agencies allocated over $1.4 million for acequia work.

The N.M. Department of Transportation will be in charge of clean-up operations. John Romero, a director within the department, explained to acequia stewards in Silver City last week how the process will work.

Eleven acequias are eligible for the debris removal in the Mimbres and Cliff areas. That’s just over half of the public acequias in Grant County. There are likely around a dozen or more damaged acequias in other southern counties.

Romero said the department worked with the New Mexico Acequia Association to figure out which systems needed help and would consider helping other ditches, too, if they reach out immediately.

Romero said it took a while to get the funding to do this work. He said the Department of Transportation met with the stewards back in November 2022 to talk about getting the project going.

“Things kind of stalled out since that point,” he said. “But now we're moving in and we should move pretty fast.”

It’ll take six to eight weeks for the state to finish its job, Romero said.

An acequia steward asked if they could start the clean-up work on their own and get reimbursed with these state funds later, if they can’t wait eight weeks for the work to get done. John Romero said no, because these funds are just for the Department of Transportation to do the debris removal.

However, a steward could try to go through a different process to get reimbursed for that work.

Matthew Smith is a senior program manager for the environmental consulting firm High Water Mark LLC. He explained that DHSEM also holds state emergency funds for Grant County, and acequia stewards could apply for those dollars instead. However, it would be a much longer process to get that money back and it would only cover three-quarters of the cost.

“It does take some time,” Smith said. “There is a lot of administrative burden on that part, so a lot of forms that need to be filled out and a lot of due diligence as far as keeping track of costs.”

Romero added that crews will strictly be removing debris and only one site in Cliff will get repairs due to the nature of the work.

This is just a temporary fix. The soil on the Black Fire burn scar will remain tough for years, ranchers said, making it possible for precipitation to flow off of it easily in the future, leading to more flooding.

John Paul Romero is the project consultant for the Department of Transportation who will lead the contractors. Romero said there will be multiple crews — who are local, he said in a response to a question — on the ground so they can get to both the Cliff and Mimbres acequias.

He assured the stewards that the contractors would be working closely with them so the state can prioritize which ditches to work on first.

“I want to include the mayordomos,” he said, “and then during the debris removal, we can make sure that we get to the projects that are the most important.”

3 men convicted in 2018 murders of 2 Albuquerque teen boys - Associated Press

Three men were convicted Monday in the 2018 beating and shooting deaths of two Albuquerque teenage boys in an alleged drug deal gone wrong.

A jury in 2nd Judicial District Court found 23-year-old Stephen Goldman Jr., 26-year-old Jimmie Atkins and 18-year-old Julio Almentero guilty of two counts each of first-degree murder, kidnapping and armed robbery.

Prosecutors said 14-year-old Ahmed Lateef and 15-year-old Collin Romero were found buried in a remote area of Sandoval County about two weeks after their disappearance in December 2018.

The two boys appeared to have been tortured before they were killed with Lateef shot 19 times and Romero at least nine times, according to authorities.

Jurors began deliberating the case last Friday afternoon and returned the verdicts shortly before noon Monday.

Prosecutors say Goldman, Atkins and Almentero each are facing life in prison when they're sentenced at a later date. Two other men involved in the case took plea deals and got prison terms.

Police: Santa Fe County magistrate arrested on a DWI charge - Associated Press

A newly elected Santa Fe County magistrate has been arrested on a DWI charge, according to authorities.

Santa Fe police took Dev Atma Khalsa into custody early Sunday morning on suspicion of aggravated driving while intoxicated and driving with an expired license.

According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, police responded to a rollover crash on Interstate 25 and found Khalsa standing outside his vehicle. Police said officers reported Khalsa had an odor of an alcoholic beverage on his breath and noticeably slurred speech although he said he had nothing to drink. Khalsa was transported to a hospital for evaluation but became uncooperative and refused to be medically assessed or submit to a blood test or chemical test, police told the New Mexican.

He was released from jail Sunday. It was unclear Monday if Khlasa has a lawyer yet who can speak on his behalf.

Khalsa began his first term as a Santa Fe County Magistrate just a few months ago and previously worked as prosecutor in the First Judicial District Attorney's Office. Police said Khalsa doesn't appear to have any other DWI charges on his record.

Parts of New Mexico under watch for high winds, blowing dust - Associated Press

The National Weather Service has issued another high wind watch Monday for parts of New Mexico along with a blowing dust advisory.

Numerous power outages were reported Sunday across Albuquerque and other parts of the state due to extremely high winds.

On Wednesday, a winter storm brought wind gusts of up to 85 mph in Santa Fe and toppled some trees and blew signs away.

Another storm system — this one moving east from Southern California and Arizona on Sunday — packed winds up to 50 mph along with some snow.

The Weather Service said less than an inch of snow was expected to fall in Santa Fe with up to 3 feet in New Mexico's mountainous areas.

The storm is expected to exit the state on Monday, but meteorologists said strong wind gusts are forecast to return Tuesday.

In Arizona, Flagstaff had highs only in the upper 20s Sunday with up to a foot of new snow on the ground.

A low-pressure system brought widespread rain and snow in southern Nevada, according to the National Weather Service office in Las Vegas.

An avalanche warning was issued for the Sierra Nevada backcountry around Lake Tahoe, which straddles the California-Nevada border.

What to do with the Walmart in ABQ’s International District? - Maddie Pukite, Source New Mexico 

The Walmart in Albuquerque’s International District is set to close on March 10 and what happens next is up in the air, because the company still owns the property.

The lot is zoned for mixed use, meaning several different options could be built in its place. In order for anything new to go in the space, such as housing, a park, or even another retail space, Walmart must choose to sell the property.

Currently, the company is having conversations with the City of Albuquerque about “the best path forward,” according to Lauren Willis, the Global Communications Director of Western U.S Walmarts.

The Walmart is located in the International District off San Mateo Blvd, just south of Central Avenue. It’s next to a high school and near a major public transportation hub, which makes the location easily accessible for those who do not have a car.

People that live in the neighborhood began conversations last week about what they would like to see happen with this location. One, everyone wants something to replace the store and make sure the area is not vacated for too long. An idea brought up by many at the meeting was to create a Mutual Aid hub.

Mutual Aid programs have long existed in the district. Programs like, ABQ Mutual aid, and local gardens, are services organized by the community, and allow people to connect with resources, and get things like food, or household products, according to Bernadette Hardy (Díne), and Guillermina Osoria, two community organizers with International District Healthy Communities Coalition..

“Because that’s the way that we’re going to be able to really get to the root cause of the problem. We can be in front of people, (and ask) do you have enough money to pay your rent? Or pay your medicine? Do you have enough money to buy your food, or pay the electricity or the water,” Osoria said.

Enrique Cardiel, a community organizer who brought people together for this meeting, thinks the Walmart closure will create energy in the community to organize around a solution to address problems created by Walmart leaving the neighborhood, such as access to basic necessities like food and medicine.

“I think this creates some urgency to it. We’ve talked about community grocery stores in the past, but now, there’s a pressure to figure it out,” Cardiel said.“And so I think, while it’s a crisis, it also creates an opportunity, an energy to do stuff. And so, hopefully we step up as a community to figure it out.”

The inspiration for creating a potential mutual aid organizing space is the large parking lot that surrounds the building. This could provide ample room to arrange food, supplies and facilitate care on a larger scale, community members discussed at the meeting.

Many are happy to see Walmart go. However, the short notice will leave many in the area without an accessible place to get groceries, toiletries and home products, along with also losing a pharmacy and banking location. Hardy said this creates an even greater of a need for mutual aid efforts right now.

“We know we have the highest rates of chronic disease, people with disabilities, people who use the bus, and we depend on Walmart a lot. But I also don’t want to support Walmart. We need to be self-sufficient,” Hardy said.

When Walmart opened its store in the International District it put a lot of local shops in the area out of business. Cardiel talked about watching many of those businesses close.

“We’ve seen over the last couple of decades, smaller businesses just not be able to keep up. We had a lot of black owned businesses, those are gone. There’s a lot of Mexican and Asian businesses and a lot of those, just struggled or some of them closed,” Cardiel said. “A lot of infrastructure is just not there.”

Cardiel hopes that the city encourages a new grocery store to open up in the area, and also supports more cooperative efforts like getting farmers together to sell their goods.

Cardiel said they hope that if a new grocery store comes into the area they reach out to the community beforehand, something Walmart did not do.

“We need a supermarket. And I see figuring how to encourage a supermarket to be here is part of the puzzle,” Cardiel said.

The Walmart closure was a celebratory moment for Osoria who said the corporation has a legacy of harming communities of color, and forces people to be dependent on the store. This moment leaves a welcome opportunity for something new in the International District, Osoria said.

“They (Walmarts) come in, make all the money, and then when they made enough, or when they feel that they want to get up and leave,” Osoria said. “I’m seeing the closure of Walmart as a positive thing for the future.”

New Mexico Indian Affairs appointee accused of rape in 2007 - Santa Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

A former governor of a New Mexico pueblo appointed earlier this month to oversee the state's Indian Affairs Department, including its specialized task force addressing crimes against Indigenous women and girls, was accused of rape in 2007.

James Mountain was indicted the following year on charges of kidnapping and aggravated battery after his ex-girlfriend accused him of sexual assault, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported. The case was dismissed in 2010 after prosecutors said they did not have enough evidence for Mountain to stand trial.

Mountain did not respond to interview requests from the newspaper and could not immediately be reached Saturday by The Associated Press for comment.

On Friday, as calls for Mountain's recusal from state leaders and activists continued to surface, a spokesperson for New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisahm said the governor was "aware" of the allegations against Mountain but does not intend to withdraw her nomination.

"We hope that those who are leveling concerns would respect the judicial process and acknowledge the results," Maddy Hayden said in a statement.

Lujan Grisham announced in early February that she had chosen Mountain to be the state's next secretary of Indian Affairs in a statement highlighting his history as a leader in Pueblo de San Ildefonso. Mountain served as governor 2006-2007 and 2015-2017.

His appointment has not yet been confirmed by the state Senate Rules Committee.

Democratic state Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez told the Santa Fe New Mexican that the allegations against Mountain should be "fully vetted."

"I'm very troubled by the idea of having someone with his kind of record in that position that oversees the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives Task Force," she said.

Angel Charley, executive director of the Albuquerque-based Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, told the newspaper on Friday that she met with Mountain in mid-February and asked him to recuse himself. Charley said that Mountain declined to do so.

Some Democratic-led states seek to bolster voter protections - By Ayanna Alexander Associated Press

Lawmakers in several Democratic-controlled states are advocating sweeping voter protections this year, reacting to what they view as a broad undermining of voting rights by the Supreme Court and Republican-led states as well as a failed effort in Congress to bolster access to the polls.

Legislators in Connecticut, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey and New Mexico have introduced voting rights measures, while Michigan's secretary of state is preparing a plan.

Among other things, the proposals would require state approval for local governments to change redistricting or voting procedures, ban voter suppression and intimidation, mandate that ballots are printed in more languages, increase protections for voters with disabilities, ensure the right to vote for those with previous felony convictions and instruct judges to prioritize voter access when hearing election-related challenges.

The measures are taking a much wider approach than legislation targeting a single aspect of voting or elections law. They seek to implement on a statewide basis many of the protections under the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, a law that many Democrats and voting rights groups say is being stripped of its most important elements.

If the legislation is enacted, the states would join California, New York, Oregon, Washington and Virginia in having comprehensive voting rights laws.

"It's up to states now to ensure that the right to vote is protected," said Janai Nelson, president of the the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Maryland's proposal includes a requirement for local voting changes to receive preapproval, mirroring core provisions of the federal law that was struck down by the Supreme Court a decade ago.

Maryland was not among the states, mostly in the South, that was covered under the provision known as preclearance before the court ended it. But lawmakers there saw it as important because of persistent concerns over how districts for local governing bodies have been drawn, said Morgan Drayton, policy and engagement manager at Common Cause Maryland.

"A lot of our maps here are drawn behind closed doors, and there's not a lot of input from the public that's able to be given," she said. "So this would do a lot to make these processes more transparent."

In Maryland's Baltimore County, a lawsuit claimed the county council's map packed most Black voters into a single district. The state legislation would require jurisdictions in Maryland with a history of voter discrimination to have redistricting and election changes cleared by the state attorney general.

Democratic state Del. Stephanie Smith, a co-sponsor of the legislation, said that despite Maryland's racial diversity and history of diversity in its political leadership, "access to the ballot and equitable representation is uneven."

"This bill strengthens our commitment to voting access and protections at a time of great stress on our democratic institutions," she said.

Proposals in Michigan and New Mexico address harassment against election workers and voters, especially those in minority communities. One of several bills in New Mexico would protect election officials, from the secretary of state to county and municipal elections clerks, from intimidation. That would be defined as inducing or attempting to induce fear, and a violation would be punishable as a fourth-degree felony punishable by up to 18 months in prison.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, said she will seek similar protections for voters, including prohibiting firearms within a certain distance of polling places.

"We need an explicit ban on voter suppression and intimidation," she said.

Connecticut's legislation would expand language assistance for voters who speak, read or understand languages other than English. Language assistance is covered under the federal law, but only specifies protections for Spanish-speakers and for Asian, Native American and Alaska Native language minorities.

Ballots offered in Arabic, Haitian Creole and other languages also are needed, said Steven Lance, policy counsel at the national NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

A language would be covered if the group speaking it is more than 2% of the citizens of voting age in a particular municipality or the group includes more than 4,000 citizens of voting age, under Connecticut's legislative proposal.

Residents also would have the right to ask the secretary of state to review whether a certain language should be covered, Lance said.

In New Jersey, advocacy organizations are pushing to expand voting rights legislation to include more groups that would be specifically protected from discrimination, including the state's sizable Arab American population.

"A reality is the federal VRA was originally crafted in 1965, and while there have been other bills in the decade since, the VRA doesn't reflect the diversity of the population of New Jersey in 2023," said Henal Patel, law & policy director at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.

Some state voting rights bills also seek to create databases for information that has not always been readily available, such as polling place locations, voting rules and redistricting maps. The bills also would specify that state judges interpret voting laws in a way that ensures people maintain their right to vote.

Democrats in Minnesota are pushing numerous voting changes, including restoring voting rights to felons as soon as they are released from prison, allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister so they are ready to vote as soon as they turn 18 and automatically registering people to vote when they obtain or renew their driver's licenses.

Passing state voting rights legislation is only half the battle, said state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, a Virginia Democrat who introduced a state voting rights act that passed in 2021 when Democrats controlled both houses of the Legislature and the governor's office.

McClellan noted that ensuring voting rights historically was a bipartisan issue, but said Republicans are now focused on "fighting phantom voter fraud" — making this year's Virginia legislative elections all the more important.

"The entire General Assembly is up for election this year, and I think that's going to be a big theme in the election — that if we want to protect our progress on voting rights, we're going to need to make sure that Democrats keep the Senate and regain the majority in the House," McClellan said.

McClellan won a special election this past week to fill an open seat in the U.S. House, where she will make history as the first Black woman to represent the state in Congress.

New Mexico governor pans Forest Service amid wild cow fight - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

New Mexico's governor has stepped into the fight over how federal land managers are eradicating wild cows in the Gila Wilderness.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued a statement Friday saying she was disappointed by what she described as the U.S. Forest Service's lack of meaningful, long-term engagement with stakeholders on a controversial issue.

The Forest Service is currently conducting an aerial shooting operation to kill as many as 150 "unauthorized" cows in a vast area of steep rugged valleys and mountain sides blanketed with trees.

The operation has been the source of legal wrangling and protests by the agricultural community in southwestern New Mexico.

Federal officials and environmentalists contend the animals are trampling stream banks and damaging habitat for other species. Ranchers argue the operation amounts to animal cruelty and that the cows could have been rounded up and removed instead of letting their carcasses rot in the wilderness.

A federal judge cleared the way for the operation Wednesday when he denied a request by ranchers for a delay.

The governor said she has shared her concerns with federal officials and asked them to do better.

"Whether debating prescribed burns or wildlife management, it is imperative that New Mexicans who live and work in and near impacted areas are allowed the time to be meaningfully involved in these decisions," Lujan Grisham said. "When that does not occur, it fosters a continued climate of distrust and hinders progress toward our shared goals of a healthy environment and a thriving rural economy."

"As it stands, they are failing New Mexicans," she said.

The Forest Service said Friday it shares the governor's values when it comes to conservation and public engagement and will remain committed to transparency.

Agency spokesperson Ivan Diego Knudsen said there have been extensive discussions with stakeholders over the past several years and the agency has tried to address concerns. He said those discussions with the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, the New Mexico Livestock Board and the ranching community will continue.

"Our hope is to work with cattle producers so that we can achieve more effective operations than have occurred in the past," Knudsen said in a statement.

The agency said it supports "an integrated approach that may include both gathers and aerial removals to best meet our shared vision" for the wilderness area.

Ranchers in court documents had argued that the agency was skipping the steps of rounding up the cattle and impounding them, opting instead for the last resort of gunning them down. Their attorney said in court that the operation had the potential to result in an estimated 65 tons (59 metric tons) of dead animals being left in the wilderness for months until they decompose or are eaten by scavengers.

The Gila National Forest issued its final decision to gun down the wayward cattle last week amid pressure from environmental groups that have raised concerns about unchecked grazing in sensitive areas.

Todd Schulke, co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, said his group believes the Forest Service has done its best to address the damage done by feral cattle in the least impactful way possible.

The cattle in question are the descendants of cows that legally grazed the area in the 1970s before the owner went out of business. Federal officials have made several attempts over the last couple of decades to remove the animals, including a similar shooting operation in 2022 that took out 65 cows in two days.

The Forest Service said it would release results early next week once the operation is concluded.

Trial looms in case of boy's death at remote, armed compound - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Three defendants from an extended family arrested in a 2018 law enforcement raid on a ramshackle desert encampment rejected compromise offers from prosecutors to resolve kidnapping, terrorism and weapons charges in proceedings Friday at U.S. District Court in Albuquerque.

The U.S. government's case against sisters Hujrah and Subhannah Wahhaj, along with Subhannah's husband Lucas Morton, will proceed toward a likely trial scheduled for September after the defendants affirmed their rejection of confidential offers to plead guilty in return for specific sanctions.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Laura Fashing asked each one a series of questions to verify that they had reviewed and understood the plea offers and consequences of rejecting them and proceeding toward trial.

"Did anybody threaten you or force you to take the position that you did not want to accept the government's plea offer?" Fashing asked.

"No. ... It was my decision," Hujrah Wahhaj said.

Plea offers are still in limbo for two additional defendants in the case. Siraj Ibn Wahhaj is expected to reject a plea offer but did not attend Friday's hearing because of health issues.

Jany Leveille has agreed to accept a potential prison sentence of 12-15 years with the dismissal of kidnapping and terrorism-related charges — but prosecutors may withdraw the offer based on responses from other defendants, under terms of a "global" plea proposal. A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Albuquerque declined to comment further Friday.

The five defendants were arrested in August 2018 as state agents searched for a sickly 3-year-old who had been reported missing by his mother in Georgia. Sheriff's deputies and state agents initially found 11 hungry children and a small arsenal of ammunition and guns on a remote compound in Taos County, New Mexico. After days of searching, the deputies and agents recovered the decomposed remains of the 3-year-old in an underground tunnel.

Authorities have said the deceased child, Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, suffered from untreated disabilities as father Siraj Ibn Wahhaj and Leveille performed daily prayer rituals over him — even as he cried and foamed at the mouth. Authorities also said Leveille believed medication suppressed the group's Muslim beliefs.

Forensic specialists determined the child died several months prior to the recovery of his body.

Kidnapping charges have not been filed against Siraj Ibn Wahhaj in the alleged abduction of Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj because they are father and son.

Leveille is accused of flouting prohibitions on firearms possession and transportation based on her status as a Haitian national without legal standing in the U.S. after she overstayed a visa without seeking renewal. Convictions also could result in her removal from the U.S.

An initial grand jury indictment alleged Leveille and her partner instructed people at the compound to be prepared to engage in jihad and die as martyrs and that one more relative was invited to bring money and firearms.

All five defendants were charged with conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States and providing material support to each other as potential terrorists by crossing state lines with firearms and training at the New Mexico compound.

Defense attorneys have said their clients would not be facing terrorism-related charges if they were not Muslim.

Morton is acting as his own legal counsel after declining his right to a public attorney.

Morton told the judge Friday that a security lockdown within the Cibola County Correctional Center at Milan was interfering with his access to a law library to prepare for his defense in court.