Legislature calls on attorney general to create new missing and murdered Indigenous people task force

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Indigenous families with loved ones who have gone missing or been murdered protest in downtown Albuquerque 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).

The New Mexico Legislature has asked Attorney General Raúl Torrez to create a new task force focused on a crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people after a memorial containing the request passed in the final hour of the legislative session, which concluded at noon today.

Senate Joint Memorial 2 cleared the House on Thursday morning after passing in the Senate last week. 

A spokeswoman for Torrez didn’t respond to a question from New Mexico In Depth about whether he plans to act on lawmakers’ request. Unlike a bill, the memorial isn’t enforceable.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham quietly dissolved a task force dedicated to finding solutions to the crisis in mid-2023. 

Her staff said the group achieved its objectives and the state is carrying forward its recommendations. But some task force members believed their work was just beginning, and a handful of impacted families protested the governor’s decision in October.

Lawmakers agreed, and the House and Senate both passed the memorial unanimously. 

A new task force should, according to the memorial, be made up of no more than 40 members, including tribal representatives, survivors and families, and law enforcement, who should offer legislative proposals and update a 115-page plan the defunct task force delivered in 2022. 

The attorney general’s office, recently renamed the New Mexico Department of Justice, is a logical home for a couple reasons, memorial sponsor Sen. Shannon Pinto, D-Tohatchi, said in an interview in January. 

Other states have created similar groups overseen by their attorneys general, who work with many law enforcement agencies, Pinto said. A lack of coordination between jurisdictions often stands in the way of getting justice for missing or murdered Indigenous people. 

“I think it’s a grand idea that it is put under the attorney general’s office, where it will get the importance, the high priority that it needs,” Sen. Brenda McKenna, D-Corrales, another sponsor, said during debate in the Senate last week. “We know we need to fix the gaps between the database systems and having this task force under the attorney general’s office gives me a bit more solace.”

But the Department of Justice already has a few legislative mandates meant to address the crisis that, as of November, hadn’t entirely been met.

Two years ago, lawmakers created a missing Indigenous persons specialist position in the attorney general’s office and required the office to set up an online portal to track cases. Under the legislation, which contained a $1 million appropriation, the department could also give tribes grants to help in that search. 

Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, also a memorial sponsor, questioned what progress had been made in implementing the bill at an Indian Affairs Committee meeting in November. 

Chief Deputy Attorney General James Grayson said a specialist was working on cases but the portal hadn’t been created and no grants had gone out. The FBI and the Department of Public Safety already have similar databases, Grayson said, and his department was working with a vendor “to establish better communication and better connection to those databases for other law enforcement agencies in the state and for tribal nations.”

Asked in January if she had any concerns about the attorney general overseeing a new task force, Lopez said she was hopeful there will be more focus on missing and murdered Indigenous people in Torrez’s second year in office. He became attorney general in January 2023.

“It takes a while for you to come up to speed,” Lopez said. “I think the task force will also give some more guidance and help. I think it can work together.” 

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