As the administration of Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry enters its final months, histories of critical times are being recorded. One narrative was charted June 29 at the Albuquerque Museum in Old Town, where the two-term Republican mayor was delivered an “Excellence in Public Safety” award by the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce (GACC).
Outside the museum doors another chapter more suited for a Howard Zinn history book was being written.
Angered by the GACC’s award amid crime waves, drug epidemics, economic stagnation and other symptoms of social and economic meltdown, demonstrators endured 90 degree-plus heat to vent their outrage. A placard graded Berry with six fat “Fs” on subjects including the contentious Albuquerque Rapid Transit (A.R.T.) project, crime and jobs, while a banner depicted Uncle Sam with a message of “Fire them all in the fall.” One sign simply proclaimed, “This is Bullshit!”
The generationally and ethnically mixed crowd of about three dozen people certainly wasn’t the biggest Duke City protest this reporter has covered, but it undoubtedly was among the most passionate.
Albuquerque mayoral hopeful Stella Padilla poked jabs at New Mexico’s power structure for neglecting poverty, drug abuse, nuclear threats, toxic waste and more. “Make no mistake about it, there are tons of money in the state of New Mexico, but it’s just not for the people,” Padilla told protesters. In her book, a new generation of 18- to 30-year-old “opiate addicts” is the product of a system that’s “keeping us oppressed by design.”
Longtime activist and Padilla campaign manager Dina Vargas challenged the group: “How many people feel safe in Albuquerque? Raise your hand.” Not a single hand went up. “You walk in into a store and people are stealing candy, people are stealing batteries, things you can’t imagine,” Vargas continued.
(A few weeks ago this reporter witnessed a man saunter into a Subway outlet and attempt to dash off with an order of food sitting on the counter. Two enraged female employees chased the unsuccessful thief off, yelling at him in Spanish “stupid” and “animal.”)
Shifting gears, Vargas blasted Santolina, a planned development for up to 100,000 residents that’s been fiercely contested over potential water usage, tax breaks and planning. “They’re all for Santolina,” Vargas thundered through a portable sound system. “It won’t build the West Mesa — it will kill it.”
Downtown resident Tommy Hufnagel had the words “Crime Victim” lettered on a placard he was wearing. The older man said his garage was broken into once, his car was similarly violated, and his backyard was entered by unknowns. “This is pretty common,” he sighed. Hufnagel’s companion, Pat Bartels, contended that no effective deterrent exists for criminal activity. “I’m not talking about prison sentences,” Bartels clarified, asserting that drug treatment programs are lacking. “Berry’s shown no leadership,” she said.
Debts with justice
Justice was a big issue at the museum protest. Looking every bit the priest, Father Frank Quintana reminded demonstrators about Jonathan Sorensen, a young man and suspected shoplifter who was subdued by Albuquerque Kmart security one day in May of last year and soon pronounced dead. “Has this city done anything? Has the D.A. done anything?” Quintana asked. “What’s a safety award if we can’t go to Kmart and come out alive?”
Attired in biker-style leather, David Casarez held a sign that called attention to the unsolved murders of 11 women and girls who disappeared and were found, years later in 2009, buried on the city’s West Mesa; the backlog of Albuquerque Police Department (APD) rape kits; and New Mexico’s ranking in rape statistics. Packing a pistol at his side (New Mexico is an open carry state), Casarez asked fellow protesters, “How many of you feel safe? How many of you have to carry a gun to feel safe? I have to carry a gun to feel safe.”
The burly man denounced the killing of his friend, Earl “Payaso” Roybal, who was shot to death last March by James Morales after an argument over a stall at a car wash. Although Roybal was openly armed, Casarez told this reporter that his friend approached the other man with his arms up, and that six key seconds of a video of the scene are missing.
Despite calling the Roybal killing “a tragic death that should never have happened,” Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez nevertheless announced last month that no charges would be filed in the case because of evidentiary issues and self-defense claims.
Roybal’s friends urge Torrez reconsider his decision. Posted in memory of Roybal’s June 27 birthday, a message on the New Mexico Motorcyclist Rights Organization’s Facebook page read in the part, “We are also upset because the justice system has turned their back on Earl, a veteran who served our country. We won’t forget and we will not give up our fight for justice…”
In bursts of rage, protesters at the Albuquerque Museum shouted “shame on Berry, shame, shame, shame” and yelled “traitors” at people filing past police guards into the ceremony. APD officers demanded the protesters move back to the sidewalk but did not press the issue after people held their ground.
In a blast from the past, Pete Domenici, now 85 years of age and in a wheel chair, was pushed into the museum by an assistant. The legendary ex-senator, who wielded power in Washington from 1973 to 2009, was reproached by Padilla for entering the ceremony.
Like an improvised rock trio, Padilla, Casarez and Vargas led a sing-along to Twisted Sister’s song “We’re Not Gonna Take It” booming from the sound system placed outside the Old Town museum:
“Oh we’re not gonna take it
No, we ain’t gonna take it
Oh we’re not gonna take it anymore
We’ve got the right to choose it
There ain’t no way we’ll lose it
This is our life, this is our song
We’ll fight the powers that be…”
When the song ended, someone suggested slapping on a Rage Against the Machine tune.
A stunned public responds to Berry’s award
News of Berry’s award triggered an outpouring of public shock, disgust and ridicule on radio talk shows and the Internet. Albuquerque Free Press Editor Dennis Domzralski compared the GACC award to giving “a humanitarian of the year award to an ax murderer.”
Dr. Jeremy Reynalds, founder and chief executive officer of the Joy Junction homeless shelter, announced his organization was immediately quitting the GACC. “To do nothing and stay silent would be an insult to the families who have lost loved ones through our crime infested city, and ignoring the plight of businesses whose finances have been depleted through this daily crime spree,” Reynalds wrote on Joy Junction’s blog.
A smiling Shaun Willoughby, president of the Albuquerque Police Officers Association, countered the award by presenting a framed “Most Out of Touch With Their Community” award to the GACC on the cop union’s Facebook page. Willoughby’s union has long been at loggerheads with the Berry administration.
In a statement posted on Mayor Berry’s official website, GACC President and CEO Terri Cole noted that Berry accepted the award “on behalf of the men and women of the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) and other law enforcement agencies and partners who have worked tirelessly to address disruptions in the criminal justice system and to build a sustainable plan to combat crime in Albuquerque.”
Cole credited Berry for being “instrumental” in launching a repeat offender squad spearheaded by APD and drawing in the Bernalillo County Sherriff’s Office, the FBI and DA’s office, as well as securing “significant funding” from Bloomberg Philanthropies to import “a talented team of professionals” with the mission of doing “groundbreaking research” on crime and coordinating with law enforcement agencies and the private sector on “collaborative, data-driven solutions.”
Finally, Cole lauded Berry for attempting to address APD’s below-average staffing numbers by “fighting so hard for legislation that would allow retired police officers to return to work at law enforcement agencies under certain conditions, as a means of bolstering the ranks of our police departments with high-quality, well-trained, and experienced officers.”
Nonetheless, the longtime Chamber chief caught heat for Berry’s award.
“I think calling out Terri Cole was extremely important,” Dinah Vargas later said of the June 29 protest. “I think the news media followed up on that, and we echoed the police department union’s website that it was bullshit.” Vargas contended that the longtime head of the local business chamber was an example of an “off-stage” power broker who acts contrary to the public interest.
Dizzying stats, vanishing autos and crazy killers
A glance at leading public safety indicators reveals why Berry’s award arguably turned into one of the biggest public relations fiascoes in recent New Mexico memory. A report this year by the National Insurance Crime Bureau classifies Albuquerque and Bernalillo County as number one per capita for auto theft in the United States in 2016. According to the report, 10,011 vehicles were heisted in the Duke City’s environs last year, up from 6,657 in 2015.
(Off hand, this reporter personally knows six people who have had cars or trucks stolen in Albuquerque.)
The volume of Albuquerque’s 2016 auto thefts was comparable to Ciudad Juárez, a much larger city, during the height of the so-called Mexican drug war back in 2010-11.
More recently, Ciudad Juárez’s now defunct Norte newspaper reported that 2,040 vehicle thefts, including 346 carjackings, were registered by the state prosecutor’s office in the Mexican border city from January 2016 to February 2017.
Murder is also on the upswing in Albuquerque. Earlier this year, the Albuquerque Journal reported that 61 homicides were tallied in the Duke City during 2016, up from 56 the previous year and the highest number in 20 years.
Based on the 2015 population estimates, the Journal calculated the 2016 municipal murder rate at 10.9 killings per 100,000 people in the city. The World Health Organization regards a murder rate of 10 per 100,000 as constituting a public health epidemic.
If homicide rates for the four-county Albuquerque area considered, the murder numbers are even higher. According to the New Mexico Office of the Medical Examiner (OMI), 71 people were pronounced victims of homicide — defined as the intentional killing of an individual — in the metro area during 2014. In 2015, the last year for which OMI statistics are reported, that number was 86. If current trends hold, 2017 is on track to equal or surpass 2015’s homicide statistics for the metro zone.
A review of local media stories by this reporter counts at least 32 intentional homicides within the city limits and 40 total in the metro area between January 1 and June 30 of this year. The second half of 2017 started off on a sour note, too. On July 1 and 2, APD responded to a shooting that left at least one man critically injured and separately investigated a “suspicious death,” according to media reports.
As in previous years, high-profile, vicious killings are making headlines. Yoan Pena Santiesteban and Gloria Chavez are in jail, accused of a 12-day rampage in May that separately took the lives of 44-year-old Iraqi refugee and father of two Samir Al-Abboudy, 27-year-old mother of three Celina Marie Macias Arellanes, and 25-year-old Matthew Severinghaus. Media accounts identify meth as a marker on the murder trail.
In another May killing, 87-year-old Josefina Ortega was found murdered in her home. And in June, Leo Molzhon was allegedly set on fire by two men and burned to death on his mattress underneath Interstate 40. The slaying recalled the 1980’s murder of the Ragman, a colorful fixture for years on Central Avenue near the University of New Mexico and one of the pioneers of the homeless, mentally ill population which now overwhelms the city, who was set on fire on his alleyway bed by assailants one evening.
Who’s offering solutions?
Crime, violence, drugs, City Hall, APD and the courts are emerging as the top issues dominating the nominally nonpartisan municipal election for mayor and city councilors on Oct. 3. So far, eight candidates (six men and two women) have qualified for the mayoral race, but many observers expect Republican City Councilor Dan Lewis and New Mexico State Auditor Tim Keller, a Democrat, to wind up in a November run-off. The eight contenders are required to turn in a formal declaration of candidacy on Aug. 8, according to the Albuquerque Office of the City Clerk.
Many of the mayoral aspirants are on record promising to sack APD Chief Gorden Eden and members of his command. For their part, Mayor Berry and Eden have frequently blamed the city’s public safety woes on “catch and release” judges who keep seeing but releasing the same offenders.
Stella Padilla is also still trying to make the ballot. Padilla, who said she turned in far more than the required 3,000 nominating signatures, is locked in a legal battle with Albuquerque City Clerk Natalie Howard over the validity of petition signatures. The ballot access issue has been complicated by Howard’s request for a protective order against Padilla’s daughter, Vanessa Benavidez, stemming from a May 19 encounter at the city clerk’s office between Howard and Benavidez, according to a court document.
Padilla’s lawyer filed a response that in part accused Howard and the City of Albuquerque of violating First Amendment rights to free speech and petitioning of government. A hearing on the matter is scheduled for July 7 before Judge Nancy J. Franchini of the Second Judicial District Court in Albuquerque.
“They’ve harmed my campaign,” Padilla charged, adding she was excluded from two important campaign forums as well as from absentee ballots. Reached by phone, Howard declined to comment on Padilla due to “pending litigation.” Howard, however, said ballots remain to be printed; absentee ballots are scheduled for issuance on Aug. 29. Early voting begins “before we know it” on Sept. 13, Howard said.
Additionally, 18 candidates (13 men and five women) are vying for the five City Council seats. In a crisis-shadowed race, it remains to be seen whether Burqueños will express their frustrations politically in large numbers or behave like Paseños in El Paso’s recent municipal contest — in which less than 10 percent of eligible voters bothered to cast ballots in either the general or run-off election, even with controversies simmering like the avalanche of seemingly interminable road work projects and the city plan to raze the El Paso’s oldest continuously inhabited neighborhood, Duranguito, and build a sports arena on its ruins.
Meanwhile, the Duke City is gearing up for Summerfest on Central Avenue in Nob Hill. The headline act for the July 22 event is East Los Angeles’ Los Lobos, a beloved band in Albuquerque. Perhaps David Hidalgo and his fellow wolves will render into the Albuquerque evening a version of their 1987 song “One Time, One Night,” a tune which would find particular resonance this year:
“A wise man was telling stories to me
About the places he had been to
And the things that he had seen
A quiet voice is singing something to me
An age old song about the home of the brave
In this land here of the free
One time one night in America
A lady dressed in white with the man she loved
Standing along the side of their pickup truck
A shot rang out in the night
Just when everything seemed right
Another headline written down in America
The guy that lived next door in #305
Took the kids to the park and disappeared
About half past nine
Who will ever know
How much she loved them so
That dark night alone in America.”
Kent Paterson is an independent journalist who covers issues in the U.S./Mexico border region.