When state leaders created a task force to spotlight the often overlooked tragedy of murdered and missing Indigenous women, the goal was to increase both attention and resources for reporting and identifying those who vanished.
But when task force members released their initial report Wednesday, they said they ran up against a number of barriers to achieving that goal.
Chief among them: There's no single law enforcement agency maintaining a database of those cases, and efforts to collect information from nearly two dozen law enforcement entities through public records requests often were hampered by responses saying the requests were too broad or too burdensome.
"Not getting the level of data we were hoping to get from across the state was one concern," said Stephanie Salazar, general counsel for the state Indian Affairs Department, during a virtual news conference on the report.
In three cases, law enforcement agencies did not respond to public records requests at all.
Adding to the challenge, task force members found there are not enough law enforcement officers and investigators to cover such incidents, especially when they cross jurisdictional lines between counties, the state and tribal entities.
"The ability to investigate many of these cases is very limited across our jurisdiction," Salazar said.
On the Navajo Nation, there is less than one tribal officer for every 1,000 residents, the report said.
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.
Among other goals, the task force attempted to gather data on both missing Native American women and men from 2014-19. Several agencies, including the police departments of Albuquerque, Farmington and Gallup, plus county sheriff's offices in McKinley and San Juan counties, did provide extensive reports.
Based on the information the task force gathered, New Mexico had a total of 954 unsolved missing persons cases in that five-year period. Of the missing persons, 92 — 9.5 percent — were Native Americans.
Overall, the report found Native Americans made up a disproportionate amount of missing person cases in certain areas of the state. For example, 76 percent of missing persons cases in the Gallup area from 2014-19 involved Native Americans.
The report says 152 of those missing person cases involved people of "unknown races," meaning some could have been Native American. Many times, Native victims are listed as Hispanic or "other," confusing efforts to identify them.
And though many law enforcement officials told the task force members that all missing persons are entered into the National Crime Information Center, task force member Becky Johnson said that was not the case when her cousin Tiffany Reid, then 16, went missing in May 2004.
"Nobody has had any contact with her since that day," Johnson said. "We learned that the Navajo Nation does not have access to NCIC, which is why their missing people are not entered [into that system]."
The report includes a number of recommendations:
• Support increased data-gathering capacity on such crimes across the state.
• Establish a central database for maintaining that information.
• Urge tribal governments to require reporting of all missing persons in their jurisdiction to the state's Missing Persons Clearinghouse.
• Expand support services — housing, mental health programs and aftercare for victims of human trafficking rings — for Native Americans.
• Maintain funding to keep the task force going.
Lynn Trujillo, secretary of the state Indian Affairs Department, said that while she has never personally known a Native American woman who was murdered or went missing, "those losses, while maybe not my blood sister, are still deeply related to all of us. I think that's how we feel those impacts."
She said task force leaders will work with lawmakers during the upcoming 2021 legislative session to see if they can take up any of the recommendations in the report.