Over the past month, there has been some big news in MMIWR (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Parents) circles, at least here in New Mexico. Take note of this line: here in New Mexico. We will come back to this later.
The FBI made big news with a sudden press conference regarding their new list of missing Native people in New Mexico and Arizona that they released in late July. This list takes missing persons records and case data across NM and puts them together. Currently, the list stands at around 186 people more or less. The numbers change as new cases are reported and older cases are closed. This is truly the first of its kind in the nation and a testament to the work of local tribes and advocates to pressure federal and state law enforcement to take MMIWR seriously.
Indian Affairs Secretary Lynn Trujillo spoke at the press conference. “I think this is a critical step moving forward. The response plan identified these jurisdictional barriers and the lack of coordination. This is an example of state and federal partners coming together to removing some of those barriers. I think the fact that the FBI is dedicating resources to verifying this list is going to help us better understand the scope of the crisis. We’ve seen through our own work that the number of missing persons varies in our state, and maybe this will really help us determine the number of missing people and really provide answers for our families.
A great start given that NM and Albuquerque have some of the highest numbers of MMIWR cases, but this type of collaboration has yet to happen in other states. Hopefully, this will become an example of collaborative first steps in the fight against MMIWR that other communities can follow.
One thing that is always requested and always made very clear by the FBI is that the FBI is not in charge of searching for missing persons, or only if that missing person’s case becomes criminal. The average person doesn’t have a lot of experience working with court systems and also the process of reporting a missing person. If these hurdles weren’t enough, there may also be jurisdictional or legal processes that cause confusion.
An example of this was brought to the attention of the state and federal government during the July 25 FBI press conference. The Farmington Police Department was denied permission to have DNA evidence tested by the state of New Mexico. Detective Chavez, who heads his department’s missing persons and cold cases office, followed up at the Indian Affairs web meeting on July 27.
“Through some of my cold cases I have attempted to reach the lab in New Mexico for evidence to be tested. And unfortunately they will not take my evidence as the disappearance is not considered a And so we come up against the question of how we can get these things tested that can eventually give us leads and get DNA profiles for our victims,” Det. Chávez said.
The detective was again referred to the attorney general’s office. The Albuquerque Police Department (APD) representative on the call mentioned that some agencies classify these cases as homicides to get around this hurdle. But that in itself can create problems, especially in tribal communities, where a designation of murder can have cultural implications.
Darlene Gomez, Esq. works extensively with MMIWR cases and families and is an advocate for change regarding MMIWR approaches from law enforcement and policy makers. She talked about exactly this situation during our conversation.
“It’s just incredibly complex and families just have to be guided at a very basic level because it’s so complex. And so when it comes to jurisdiction, like for example myself, I go home to Lumberton. I so goes through Sandia Pueblo, Santa Ana Pueblo, Zia Pueblo, Jicarilla Reservation, Jemez, and Navajo, so I just went through six jurisdictions with three sheriff departments, state police, and the FBI. That’s 11 separate jurisdictions So, you know, if I had been abducted in Albuquerque plus Albuquerque, that’s 12. I would have gone through all of those jurisdictions.
Ms. Gomez’s ever-growing list of pro bono MMIWR cases and families includes that of Jamie Yazzie. Jamie disappeared in the summer of 2019 and her remains were discovered nearly two years later. The case is ongoing and has come to the attention of Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez.
The family had previously inquired why boyfriend Tre C. James had not been interviewed and the residence was searched immediately. Apparently this interview and search took place at some point and evidence of blood, as well as gun casings, was found. Witnesses placed her at the residence and fought with Tre the night before she disappeared. His body was found on Hopi land. Tre was charged with eight counts, including the murder of Jamie Yazzie. He has also been charged in two other separate cases after Jamie’s disappearance: domestic violence cases, including “choking, strangulation, kidnapping and assault with a dangerous weapon”, as stated in the press release from the Ministry of Justice of the Arizona district attorney’s office. .
Their acknowledgment section of the press release names the jurisdictional entities involved. “Ms. Yazzie has been listed as a missing person by federal and tribal law enforcement, and the circumstances of her disappearance have been discussed. a joint investigation by the Navajo Nation Public Safety Criminal Investigative Services Division, the Navajo Nation Police Department, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Navajo County Sheriff’s Office, and the Federal Bureau of investigation.
Darlene Gomez notes how proficiency can be a problem just for the Navajo Nation. “The Navajo Nation has seven districts. So depending on what district you’re in will determine who you call to do a missing person report, but because they’re so understaffed that your missing person report might not be a priority, so you know, in the police department they have priority 1, 2, 3, 4 with one priority, one being, you know, active shooters and things like that. So you might not even have an agent come to your house for days and days and days. So, because so many substations are not open to the public, it can also be very difficult to get in and file a report in person.
Process is the next hurdle when it comes to cases like Jamie’s, even this indictment isn’t entirely justice. But it becomes a priority because it is a case that is close to being closed and which the agencies can mark as a victory when they have not even been judged yet. One can easily confuse this news with conviction. We are not there yet. So how do you get help to get through this maze?
Locally, the Bernalillo Metro Court has worked with other agencies and programs to help families and individuals find resources that can include things like legal assistance. Their approach touches on a wide range of resources, with the ultimate goal of keeping people out of the justice system. Bernalillo County Probation Officer Tiffany Venatsky and Statewide Behavioral Health Officer Scott Patterson of the Courts Administration Office told me about the DETOUR program. DETOUR stands for Diversion Commitment Treatment Options for Underserved Parents. People can be referred to the program for a myriad of situations: legal, housing, addictions and mental health care. Tribal programs can make referrals and Bernalillo County residents can self-register.
“We work across systems to make sure people have a connection to the services they need with the aim of either preventing further system involvement or helping to get people out of the justice system of a significantly,” Venatsky said.
What does that really mean? Scott Patterson placed it in the context of judicial systems. “With initiatives like DETOUR and other initiatives taking place all over New Mexico and across the country, we are beginning to take ownership of our role in the process, our role and our ability to help people recognize their own ability to heal.”
It’s an approach and we’ll see if it works well. The big factor in using any program like this is to make the public aware that it exists. This project is funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. For more information on this upcoming initiative, call the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court at 505.841.8151.
Education and resources are clearly needed to help guide families and even small police departments as they navigate the forensic world as it relates to MMIWR. Systems must be flexible as in the case of DETOUR because of the range of situations they seek to help. But these systems also need the strong authority and resources that agencies like the FBI provide. The FBI is not there to hold hands with families through the criminal process and is completely unequipped to help with missing persons cases in general.
Any sort of macro-change in a problem like MMIWR requires micro-commitment. Attorney Gomez mentioned having had a positive working relationship with the federal government while working on behalf of the tribes, but doors close a little more when you’re working as a lawyer. She explained how these agencies should think about working in tribal communities.
“I really think it’s important that these agents have connections and not just superficial ones. Genuinely care about the communities they work in and get to know. What is the tradition? Go to basketball games, even have someone make stew and fry bread and just sit around and let people ask you questions. Because I feel like it’s them, the FBI agents, like them, it’s them. It’s not us,” Gomez said.
It is this level of comfort that is important for trust in our communities, especially when it comes to law enforcement. Years of poor policing, understaffed offices and jurisdictional boundaries have created great walls. Advocates and programs like DETOUR cannot completely break down these walls, but they can help overcome them.
This story was supported by the Fund for Indigenous Journalists Reporting on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Two-Spirit and Transgender People (MMIWG2T) of the International Women’s Media Foundation..”