A task force charged with drawing attention to the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women suggested creating an interim state office to help coordinate efforts.
The proposed office, which would have five full-time employees, could cost up to $370,000 to start, Stephanie Salazar, general counsel of the state Indian Affairs Department, told lawmakers on the interim Indian Affairs Committee on Tuesday.
She said the office can organize state efforts and collect much-needed data on missing and murdered Indigenous women to address the problems that “perpetrate the crisis in this state.”
The task force also recommended the state create an awareness day to bring various communities together and shine a brighter spotlight on the problem.
Several other states, including Michigan and Arizona, recently have mounted similar awareness days.
The task force, initiated by lawmakers during the 2019 legislative session, was created after a 2017 Urban Indian Health Institute report said New Mexico had the highest number of murdered and missing Indigenous women in the country — 78.
That report said Albuquerque and Gallup were two of the top 10 cities with the highest number of those cases.
Some lawmakers on the committee mentioned several recent high-profile cases, one involving master rug maker Ella Mae Begay, who went missing from her Arizona home in mid-June. Police are still looking for her.
Rep. Doreen Wonda Johnson, D-Crownpoint, said Begay’s disappearance is “devastating” to her family and friends, as well as communities affected by similar personal tragedies.
Several lawmakers asked Salazar and Lynn Trujillo secretary of the state Indian Affairs Department, how state, tribal and regional law enforcement agencies are working together to investigate such cases.
The answers they received echoed those given by Salazar and Trujillo last December, when the pair told lawmakers there is no single law enforcement agency maintaining a database of those cases, which hampers investigative efforts.
At that time, they said efforts to collect information from nearly two-dozen law enforcement entities through public records requests often were stymied by responses that included the requests were too broad or too burdensome.
Staffing problems within those agencies adds to the challenge, Salazar said.
“We hear a lot about lack of manpower, needing detectives to actually follow up on the investigations,” Salazar told lawmakers Tuesday. “We’re talking about hiring special detectives to cover the cases. They need to ensure they have enough patrol officers before they start filling detective positions within various agencies.”
She and Trujillo said the timeline for both the new office and the awareness day would depend upon lawmakers’ abilities to help fund the efforts.
Several lawmakers on the committee said they would do what they can during the upcoming 30-day session, scheduled to begin in mid-January.
Trujillo said Tuesday her team had not yet presented its ideas to the Governor’s Office.