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FRI: Drunk driver who hit Gallup parade-goers held till trial, + More

An SUV moments before it drove through a parade at the Galllup Intertribal Ceremonial
Sharon Chischilly
Navajo Times

Drunk driver who hit Gallup parade-goers held till trial - Associated Press

A man charged with driving drunk without a valid license and then barreling into a parade in Gallup will remain jailed until trial.

A McKinley County-Gallup District Court judge on Friday denied 33-year-old Jeff Irving, who is accused of injuring at least 15 people last week, any conditional release.

Judge Louis DePauli said he "had no faith" that Irving could refrain from drinking and driving. He cited previous DWI charges and failures to show up in court.

Barry Klopfer, Irving's defense attorney, argued Irving was never convicted of most charges and deserved to be out of jail.

Irving faces aggravated DWI, 14 counts of leaving the scene of an accident, one felony count of leaving the scene resulting in great bodily harm and third-degree felony aggravated fleeing.

Prosecutors say Irving's blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit when he drove an SUV into the Inter-Tribal Ceremonial Parade on Aug. 5. Irving, who had two passengers, sped through downtown Gallup about 15 minutes after the nighttime parade started.

His license had been revoked or suspended for another drunken driving charge and the SUV had no registration or insurance, police said.

The event was the kick-off of the 10-day Gallup Intertribal Ceremonial Centennial Celebration. Videos on social media showed people yelling for others to get out of the way and some pushing parade-goers to safety.

New Mexico seeks proposals with mine spill settlement funds - Associated Press

New Mexico is calling for proposals that would be funded with $10 million received as part of a recent settlement stemming from a 2015 mine spill that polluted rivers in three western states.

The state and the federal government reached the agreement in June. Colorado and the Navajo Nation also have inked multimillion-dollar agreements to settle claims and sort out responsibility for cleanup following the spill at the inactive Gold King Mine in southwestern Colorado.

Any proposed projects should aim to benefit farming, outdoor recreation or natural resources in northwestern New Mexico.

New Mexico's Office of the Natural Resources Trustee will consider applications for the settlement funding. Priority will be given to projects that are ready to begin soon and will be completed within three years.

"Regular monitoring of the San Juan and Animas rivers in New Mexico shows that the water is safe for agricultural and recreational uses, but the ongoing stigma associated with the Gold King Mine remains," Natural Resources Trustee Maggie Hart Stebbins said in a statement. "We encourage creative ideas that restore or replace natural and cultural resources and rebuild the region's economic sectors that depend on clean and healthy rivers and watersheds."

The spill released 3 million gallons of wastewater from the inactive mine, sending a bright-yellow plume of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals south to New Mexico, through the Navajo Nation and into Utah through the San Juan and Animas rivers.

Water utilities were forced to scramble and shut down intake valves while farmers stopped drawing from the rivers as the contaminants moved downstream.

In addition to New Mexico's $32 million settlement with the federal government announced in June, the state reached an $11 million settlement with the mining defendants last year.

Mosquitoes with West Nile virus detected in Albuquerque area - Associated Press

Environmental and health officials in the Albuquerque area say they have found mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus.

The City of Albuquerque Environmental Health Department and Bernalillo County Planning and Development Services Department jointly announced Friday the first detection this year of mosquitoes positive for the virus.

The discovery was made through monitoring of the insects at different locations around the city and unincorporated areas of the county.

Officials say people should take precautions like using insect repellent outdoors. They should also change standing water such as in wading pools and birdbaths.

People infected with West Nile virus can experience symptoms including fever, nausea, headaches and muscle aches. It can also possibly lead to meningitis or encephalitis.

Millions for internet infrastructure awarded to tribal communities in N.M. - Shaun Griswold,Source New Mexico

If it wasn’t obvious by the packed conference room at Isleta Casino Thursday morning, the excitement became clear in the loud applause after each of five tribal communities in New Mexico were awarded millions for broadband projects.

Jicarilla Apache Tribe. Mescalero Apache. Isleta Pueblo. Santo Domingo Pueblo. All had sections of community leaders in the crowd celebrating the grants totaling nearly $147 million from the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

The entire room was clapping by the time the finale grantee was awarded to the Santa Fe Indian School.

Everyone in attendance — from tribal, state and federal leadership to members of the telecom industry — was relieved to see more than a year of work culminate in a funding source to help alleviate internet connection issues in these regions.

Internet access was a rare commodity in rural New Mexico, and the gap became even more urgent when COVID-19 shut down schools and offices. Early pandemic reports showed that more than one-quarter of New Mexico public school students did not have reliable internet. Students in tribal schools climbed mountains or parked outside libraries just to get a link to homework assignments.

Now all of that could change.

Fiber optic cable projects will be the priority. Communities can work to build out their own internet service through a tribal telecommunications agency or work in collaboration with an established ISP like CenturyLink or Comcast.

This week, the Interior Department announced a plan to “streamline” broadband construction projects in tribal lands through partnership between the telecom and info administration and the Bureau of Indian Affairs that will lift certain land access restrictions to get shovels in the ground quickly.

Shortly after the event, a pilot program directed by the state was also announced that will offer grants that can potentially “cover up to 75% of total project costs for network expansion in unserved and underserved areas of the state.”

All of this indicates telecom projects will be booming in New Mexico, aided by federal dollars.

Isleta Pueblo Gov. Vernon Abeita took a moment to recognize everyone involved — from his entire cabinet, to the tribal council and the group of consultants authorized to help — then encouraged anyone hesitant to apply for these types of services to work past that feeling and try to pull down money for their communities.

“I want to thank all the tribal leaders here today that received the grants. Congratulations to all of you, because it’s putting that foot forward and moving our communities forward,” Abeita said, “moving our Pueblos and our tribal nations. So we can go ahead and continue on, and be connected to the world.”

The need to address internet connectivity issues was sharpened during COVID. Abeita said when kids were sent home from school and into online classrooms, he personally faced issues with the digital divide.

“Then all of a sudden, I myself fell into this problem where we didn’t have an internet connection in our house,” he said. “And we only live within two miles away from Albuquerque.”

The immediate option for many in tribal communities was to get internet through hot spots via cellular service providers. Issues there were pricing, low speeds and erratic connection. Internet service providers who could link up a home also offered low speeds that struggled to maintain a quality connection for households suddenly in need of having multiple devices online at once.

Andy Berke announced the awards on behalf of the telecom and info administration. He said there are applications pending, more open grant programs available and billions more that could head this way to possibly complete the Biden administration’s mission to link up every home in a tribal community.

He called this a “transformative moment” and spoke to the idea that the internet should be treated as a public utility. “Today we are changing. Thanks to leaders like you see here, internet is going to be thought of much more as an essential, like water, or electricity, or roads.”

U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, an instrumental voice in the Senate to get rural broadband funding, told others in attendance that this was just the first round of money awarded and that more could be coming soon. He did not specify how many other applications are pending for tribes in New Mexico.

“To all of you that have applied but are not part of this award ceremony, we’ll get back to you when those announcements are made,” Luján said.

Some publications blocked by new prison mail policy - Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico

Censorship of communication between incarcerated people and the outside world is nothing new, but something about that power dynamic changed in 2020, said Courtney Montoya, an organizer with the New Mexico chapter of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee.

Conditions are controlled by prison officials, she said, and with so many people crowded inside, people have few ways to protect themselves from getting infected with COVID.

A series of riots and hunger strikes in prisons and jails across the United States sought to improve the treatment of incarcerated people, specifically medical treatment and protection against getting infected, she said.

The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee is the prisoner-led section of the Industrial Workers of the World union. Incarcerated members of IWOC organize for liberation, basic human rights and basic daily necessities. Formerly incarcerated people and relatives of incarcerated people on the outside work as liaisons doing administrative tasks that can’t be done from behind prison walls.

Since late 2019, New Mexico IWOC’s letter-writing program has been connecting people inside and outside the walls throughout the Southwest, including Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, Montoya said. As part of the program, it was producing a newsletter that was getting into nearly every New Mexico prison, she said.

Volunteers would write about current events, pen poetry, produce artwork — and relay information about how incarcerated people can protect themselves from getting infected with COVID.

A lot of New Mexico prisons limit publications to four physical pages or less, Montoya said, so they printed each newsletter on four pages front and back, for a total of eight pages. They started including on each copy a legal disclaimer warning anyone handling it that it’s illegal to tamper with mail.

Regardless, the newsletter has been hindered by New Mexico’s new prison mail policy, she said.

Since Feb. 1, personal mail to any New Mexico prison must be sent to Securus in Florida. The company copies the mail and then sends along the copies. N.M. Department of Corrections officials said the policy is meant to curb the flow of drugs into the prisons, but legislative analysts showed that hasn’t happened yet despite the expense to the state.

Any mail sent directly to a prison is returned to the sender unopened. Medical, legal and other confidential mail still goes directly to incarcerated people.

After the new procedure went into effect, IWOC members started seeing more and more mail sent to the prisons getting returned with rejection letters saying “newsletters are not allowed,” Montoya said.

The policy restricts incarcerated people’s access to all kinds of publications, according to a recent lawsuit asking a judge to force the state’s Corrections Department to hand over records about how the policy came about.

According to the complaint, the policy prohibits incarcerated people from receiving “magazines or similar publications in the mail; including publications which may deal with prisoner civil rights or legal issues.”

The civil rights lawyer who filed the case, State Sen. Jacob Candelaria (DTS-Albuquerque), said in an interview Thursday he has multiple incarcerated clients who have lost access to publications as a result of the policy.

Corrections Department spokesperson Carmelina Hart said Thursday magazines cannot be scanned by the new Securus equipment, because the pages are bound together.

“So a magazine in its bound form cannot be accepted,” Hart said. “If someone sends an article or clipping unbound, in a form that can be scanned, then that could be accepted.”

Some publications are still getting behind the walls, though. Mara Taub, the longtime editor of the Coalition for Prisoners Rights Newsletter, said in an email that hers was still getting inside as of Thursday.

Potential First Amendment lawsuit

When the state tries to limit incarcerated people’s mail and their communication with the outside world, courts have raised concerns that similar policies have a chilling effect on their First Amendment rights to complain about prison abuses, policy violations and constitutional rights violations, Candelaria said.

“This policy has basically significantly curtailed the ability of inmates to access publications of any type, ranging from Playboy to the Yale Law Journal,” Candelaria said. “It is a concern to me because not all publications are alike.”

For example, an incarcerated person might be trying to buy a publication dealing with constitutional law issues, or prisoners’ rights issues, Candelaria said, or any publication that may inform and provide them with the ability to express concerns about violations of constitutional rights, human rights, or state law within the prison system.

Incarcerated people still have the right to engage in political speech, he said, even if that right is significantly restricted.

“I think that is another way that this policy is directly infringing upon those rights,” Candelaria said. He is investigating on behalf of several clients who have lost access to publications in preparation for a possible class action lawsuit against the Corrections Department for First Amendment violations.

Courts have consistently said that prison wardens and corrections departments can adopt these kinds of mail policies, but there remains a question about whether the state’s new policy violates the First Amendment of the New Mexico Constitution.

Candelaria’s complaint states that the department “has used public money to pay for Securus’ services, without a clear benefit to prison safety or the public.” The records request was meant to figure out the department’s “basis for spending public money on the Securus contract and for their recent draconian policy changes,” the complaint states.

As of the time the complaint was filed on July 29, the state had not responded to the records request at all. But on Wednesday, seven months after Candelaria submitted the records request, the department turned over a couple hundred pages of documents, he said. He is still reviewing them to see if they comply with his request.

One of the records, Candelaria said, contains an invoice from December 2021 showing that the Department paid Securus $31,000 for processing the mail.

“This is not a small contract that was awarded,” he said. “I’m looking very closely at their production to determine whether or not the state Purchasing Act was followed or their procurement code was followed or violated with respect to this contract. At current and based on my initial review, I see no evidence that the Department issued a competitive bid for this contract.”

Candelaria said he plans to make the entire set of records available on his law firm’s website.

Showing solidarity

The most effective way to communicate and show solidarity with incarcerated people is by writing to them through the mail, Montoya said, and so IWOC works in tandem with affinity groups including Black and Pink and Anarchist Black Cross, and anyone with the capacity to write.

People want to learn about poetry, their own and other cultures, history — not only as a form of escape from brutalizations and abhorrent conditions of confinement, Montoya said, but also as a form of self-expression.

“As much as these systems try to strip one of individuality, that will never be something that is stripped away, because of the ingenuity of the human spirit,” she said. “The newsletter was a dream intended to activate the human spirit of people who are struggling, because these systems are made and designed to oppress.”

Part of the inspiration for the newsletter is the Nelson Mandela Rules, the minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners adopted by the United Nations, which include requirements for communication with the outside world, like being regularly informed on important news items through newspapers, periodicals, broadcasts or lectures.

“Reading and literature are something people can use to connect not only to the outside world but to dreams, hopes and aspirations that they may have when they’re getting out,” Montoya said.

She sees the prison mail restrictions as another example of prison officials denying basic necessities to incarcerated people, which she said is a recipe for disaster. One only needs to look back a few decades to the riot at the Penitentiary of New Mexico in Santa Fe in 1980, she said.

“The worst that conditions get, violence often tends to break out in those situations,” Montoya said. “You can only take so much from someone until things topple over like a house of cards.”

Judge revives Obama-era ban on coal sales from federal lands - By Matthew Brown Associated Press

A federal judge on Friday reinstated a moratorium on coal leasing from federal lands that was imposed under former President Barack Obama and then scuttled under former President Donald Trump.

The ruling from U.S. District Judge Brian Morris requires government officials to conduct a new environmental review before they can resume coal sales from federal lands.

Almost half the nation's annual coal production — some 260 million tons last year — is mined by private companies from leases on federal land, primarily in Western states such as Wyoming, Montana and Colorado.

Few coal leases were sold in recent years after demand for the fuel shrank drastically. But the industry's opponents had urged Morris to revive the Obama-era moratorium to ensure it can't make a comeback as wildfires, drought, rising sea levels and other effects of climate change worsen.

Coal combustion for electricity remains one of the top sources of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, even after many power plants shut down over the past decade because of concerns over pollution and changing economic conditions.

The coal program brought in about $400 million to federal and state coffers through royalties and other payments in 2021, according to government data. It supports thousands of jobs and has been fiercely defended by industry representatives, Republicans in Congress and officials in coal producing states.

Among President Joe Biden's first actions in his first week in office was to suspend oil and gas lease sales — a move later blocked by a federal judge — and he faced pressure from environmental groups to take similar action against coal.

The administration last year launched a review of climate damage from coal mining on public lands as it expanded scrutiny of government fossil fuel sales that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. But no changes had been announced as a result of that review, said environmental attorney Jenny Harbine.

"This decision gives the Biden administration the opportunity to make good on its commitment to seriously battle the climate crisis," Harbine said. "No progress has been made to reform the program or do what's needed to phase out existing leases."

Interior Department officials were reviewing the ruling, spokesperson Melissa Schwartz said.

National Mining Association President Rich Nolan said the industry lobbying group would appeal Friday's ruling.

"This is a deeply disappointing decision with energy-driven inflation, energy affordability and energy security top concerns for Americans," Nolan said. "Denying access to affordable, secure energy during an energy affordability crisis is deeply troubling."

Extracting and burning fossil fuels from federal land generates the equivalent of 1.4 billion tons annually of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, according to a 2018 report from the U.S. Geological Survey. That's equivalent to almost one-quarter of total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.

Obama Interior Secretary Sally Jewell suspended coal sales in large part over climate concerns in 2016. After Trump Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke revived the program in 2017, California, New York, New Mexico and Washington state sued. The Northern Cheyenne Tribe, joined by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, also filed a legal challenge.

State officials from Wyoming and Montana argued against reviving the moratorium.

In 2017 and 2018, the most recent years for which data was available, the U.S. government sold leases for 134 million tons of coal on public land in six states, according to figures provided by the Interior Department. That's a relatively small amount compared with previous years, for example 2011 and 2012, when more than 2 billion tons were sold in Wyoming alone.

Demand for coal has plummeted as many utilities switch to natural gas or renewables to generate power.

Albuquerque zoo sees first gorilla birth in almost 20 years - Associated Press

The Albuquerque BioPark Zoo is celebrating the first birth of a gorilla in nearly 20 years.

Zoo officials say a baby western lowland gorilla was born Wednesday to mother Samantha and father Kojo.

Bob Lee, the zoo's associate director. says the zoo does not yet know the new baby's sex because the mother is keeping it very close. As a result, the zoo has temporarily shuttered the ape walk area so mother and baby can bond with some privacy.

The zoo's total number of western lowland gorillas is now up to eight. The last time a gorilla was born here was in 2004.

The parents have only been together a few years. Fifteen-year-old Samantha moved from Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas, in April 2019. Twenty-year-old Kojo was born at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., and moved here in April 2021.

They were paired as part of a species survival plan.

Albuquerque Muslims help bid to keep killings suspect jailed - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Members of New Mexico's Muslim community pushed Thursday for the Afghan refugee suspected of killing four Muslim men to remain behind bars pending trial — citing previous accusations of domestic violence and video surveillance that appeared to show him slashing the tires of a vehicle parked outside the local mosque.

The video from early 2020 had prompted leaders of the Islamic Center of New Mexico at the time to admonish Muhammad Syed and tell him not to return to the mosque.

The woman whose tires were slashed never went to the police and charges were never filed, said Ahmad Assed, the Islamic center's president.

But nearly two years later, her brother-in-law became one of the victims. Muhammad Zahir Ahmadi was fatally shot last November behind the market he owned with his brother.

Police have named Syed, 51, as the primary suspect in Ahmadi's death and in the fatal shooting of another man in early August. Authorities already have charged him with two counts of murder in the deaths of two other Muslim men in recent weeks.

Syed was arrested late Monday more than 100 miles from his Albuquerque home. He told authorities he was on his way to Texas, citing the ambush-style killings as his concern.

Albuquerque police on Thursday released two brief videos showing part of Syed's arrest. The footage from body-worn cameras includes an 18-second clip of Syed face-down on the ground as officers tell him to put his hands behind his back. He appears to tell them he does not speak English as they put him in handcuffs.

In the other clip, he is shown walking from the back of a police cruiser into the department's headquarters. He wore a striped long-sleeved shirt, dark pants and sandals.

Syed is scheduled to appear in court Monday, when a state judge will consider a motion by prosecutors seeking to detain Syed without bond pending trial. Prosecutors have argued that Syed is dangerous and that no conditions of release will ensure the community's safety.

Syed denied any connection to the crimes that shook the city and its small Muslim community after he was arrested during a traffic stop, saying he was heading to Houston to find a new home for his family over fear about the killings.

His public defenders declined comment on the case Thursday except to say that they were reviewing evidence and preparing for Monday's hearing.

"Given the level of media attention, we need to be very careful to not let this case be tried in the public forum and not a court of law," said Tom Clark, one of Syed's state appointed attorneys.

Assed and other members of the city's Muslim community said they were working with law enforcement to try to keep Syed in custody.

Despite police saying personal conflicts might be part of the motive for the killings, Assed said in an interview that Muslims are struggling to understand why the men who were killed were targeted and that the killings raised questions and concerns about whether more attacks had been planned.

"It's certainly our concern for this community as we move forward and it's a concern because not knowing more about the motive, we are at a disadvantage in understanding whether that was what was planned, that was it, or whether more victims were on the radar," Assed said.

The first killing in November was followed by three between July 26 and Aug. 5.

According to a 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.

Police said they received more than 200 tips and one from the Muslim community that led them to the Syed family. Syed knew the victims, authorities have said.

Syed has lived in the United States for about five years. When interviewed by detectives, Syed said he had fought against the Taliban, according to a criminal complaint filed in court Tuesday.

He lived in an apartment in Albuquerque with family members who told reporters that he was a truck driver but hadn't worked for a company in a long time.

Court documents show the domestic violence allegations Syed was accused of involved separate altercations with his wife, a son and his future son-in-law. The cases were dismissed because the victims declined to press charges.

2 dead, 4 injured in riot at northern Mexico border prison - Associated Press

Two inmates were killed Thursday in a fight between rival gangs at a prison in Ciudad Juarez, a Mexican border city across from El Paso, Texas, officials said.

The prosecutors' office in the border state of Chihuahua said Thursday that authorities called in the army and National Guard to control the fight at the Number 3 prison.

The office said the dispute was between "rival gangs," but did not identify which groups were involved. It had earlier reported three dead, but later said two died and four inmates were injured in the fight.

Ciudad Juarez has seen years of battles between gangs like the Artistas Asesinos, backed by the Sinaloa cartel, and the La Linea and Aztecas gangs and the Juarez cartel.