It was 10 years ago, on Feb. 2, that a woman walking her dog on Albuquerque’s West Mesa found a bone that turned out to be human. Eventually, the bones of 11 people were discovered there—two teen girls and nine women.
Family members and advocates gathered this weekend at the site to remember those who were killed, and to call for compassion for people living and working on Albuquerque’s streets.
Angelica Garcia was 4-years-old when her mom went missing. Years later, her remains were identified when the mass grave was unearthed on the West Mesa. Gina Michelle Valdez was pregnant when she died.
Over the last decade growing up, Garcia’s visited the site a lot, hopping the fence. "You know as a teenager, this was my spot to tell you the truth," she said. "I would always make my friends come over here, and we would just park on the side of the road, and I’d get out and cry. They would never understand why. But, yeah, this has been my spot."
A decade in, the city is finally turning this stretch of desert into the West Mesa Memorial Park. Garcia said she's glad it's going to be more than just dirt now.
"Not having my mom was hard," she said.
Grandparents took care of Garcia. And these days, she and her mother-in-law are close.
"I’m a mother of two now, myself, so, I’m just going to raise my girls to be the best women that they can be and to be strong and to not let anybody push them aside, and to always know that they could be whatever they want to be," she said. "My oldest wants to be a doctor, so. Yeah, and her name’s Michelle." She named her after her mom.
Curanderas offered a ceremony and song, calling to the four directions, and saying the names of all the women who were murdered and then buried there. They also called the names of women who are still missing from the same time period—some say there are six, others more like eight or nine.
Curandera Denise Griego De Angel said the city has long overlooked people who need help the most—people experiencing homelessness or who are coping with addiction and trauma. "This is a cause that’s been very close to my heart for many years," she said. "I once lived on the streets myself and went through a lot of the same things that these women must have gone through. You know, but for the grace of God, there go I."
In Albuquerque, Griego De Angel said, political stars rise and fall, and everyone wants to leave their mark, but crimes against vulnerable folks continue. "The best legacy would be to end this sort of mentality that these women or people on the streets deserve what they get," she said. "They don’t deserve any of that. They just deserve to exist and be happy and healthy."
Cynthia Vigil co-founded Street Safe—the organization that helped put together this commemoration—after news of the West Mesa murders broke. "It just devastated me because I knew a lot of the women from being on the streets," she said.
Ever since, Street Safe has taken information from people on the streets about men who’ve attacked them and what cars they drive. It’s called the Bad Guy List, and it’s distributed every week.
"It was kind of my healing process to heal from being kidnapped in my past," Vigil said.
In 1999, Vigil was held for three days by another man who was later convicted of torturing women out at Elephant Butte. She escaped his trailer, and it led to his arrest. He died a couple years later.
Vigil says she knew when it came to stopping these crimes, just keeping track of women who’d lost touch with their families would help. "I don’t know when my family would have realized I was missing," she said. "I’m just glad that we’re able to keep track of the girls, and if someone’s missing, we do report it to the police, and we do find the family and make sure that they’re safe."
Police said the women whose remains were buried here may have been targeted because they did sex work.
Street Safe worked with the Albuquerque Police Department over these years, Vigil said, so they wouldn’t just write it off when people are reported missing. "My main thing was to get that to change. And it has changed," Vigil said.
The killer or killers who buried people on the mesa have never been found. But three detectives are still working on it, according to a spokesperson for APD. The case is open, and the investigation is ongoing.