Lawmakers want attorney general to create new task force on missing and murdered Indigenous people

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Indigenous families with loved ones who have gone missing or been murdered protest outside Albuquerque City Hall on July 21, 2023. Credit: Bella Davis/New Mexico In Depth

This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Fund for Indigenous Journalists: Reporting on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Two Spirit and Transgender People (MMIWG2T).

Five New Mexico lawmakers want the state attorney general to establish a task force focused on missing and murdered Indigenous people. 

They’ve made the request via Senate Joint Memorial 2, which they introduced this week. The memorial puts on display the disagreement some lawmakers have with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s quiet shuttering last year of a task force dedicated to finding solutions to what’s been identified as a national crisis. Indigenous women in the state, according to the memorial, have the highest homicide rate among all ethnic groups.

Because this year’s 30-day session is reserved for putting together the state budget in addition to whatever priorities the governor pinpoints, the lawmakers were limited to proposing a memorial, which is not legally binding. 

Task force members decried the governor’s disbanding of their group last year, telling New Mexico In Depth in October their work was just beginning. The decision “left questions unanswered,” the memorial reads. 

The Indian Affairs Department, which housed the group, held the final meeting last May, just a few months after several members spoke out against Lujan Grisham’s appointment of James Mountain to lead the agency. 

Mountain was indicted on charges of criminal sexual penetration, kidnapping and aggravated battery against a household member in 2008, although the case was later dismissed because the prosecution said it had insufficient evidence. He left the department a month ago, less than a year after his appointment, to become the governor’s senior policy advisor for tribal affairs. 

Indigenous families with missing and murdered loved ones protest on Oct. 27, 2023 at the New Mexico State Capitol over the disbanding of a task force created to find solutions. Courtesy: Darlene Gomez

Officials have maintained they stopped convening the task force because it had met its objectives and they say the Indian Affairs Department is picking up where it left off.

But Sen. Shannon Pinto, D-Tohatchi, one of the memorial’s sponsors, said she wants to ensure state agencies are held accountable in their response to the crisis.

The new group would be charged with updating a state response plan delivered in 2022 and providing “ongoing legislative recommendations.” 

Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, another sponsor, said she believes the defunct task force “still is very important and central to a lot of the movement that we have had over the last few years.” 

In November, the governor created an advisory council that, according to a news release, will support the state’s efforts in carrying forward the response plan. Lujan Grisham appointed Pojoaque Pueblo Gov. Jenelle Roybal and Picuris Gov. Craig Quanchello to lead the group. Additional members haven’t been announced. 

Lopez, at a November meeting of the interim Indian Affairs Committee, said advisory councils “get buried in state government.” 

“Advisory councils are good. They do have a role in which they advise the secretary,” Lopez said in an interview Monday. “But it’s not inclusive of community. And I’m hoping that there will be a way for communication between the task force and the advisory council.” 

The memorial instructs the attorney general to appoint no more than 40 members, including Indigenous survivors and affected families, tribal leaders, service providers and law enforcement. The attorney general would serve as chair, unless he designated someone else. 

Those membership guidelines are lifted from an executive order Lujan Grisham issued in 2021, which created the previous task force. Lopez said she hopes at least some of the past members would be included in the new group. 

Asked how she and her colleagues landed on the attorney general’s office as the proposed new home for the task force, Pinto said other states have created similar groups overseen by their attorneys general. The move makes sense to her, Pinto said, in part because the attorney general works with many jurisdictions. A lack of coordination among jurisdictions is a common roadblock in getting justice for missing or murdered Indigenous people. 

The Senate Rules Committee will weigh in on the memorial first. It hasn’t yet been scheduled. 

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