ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — At the start of another summer weekend of bloodshed, Albuquerque police officers were called after midnight to a park where they found a screaming teenage girl beside her boyfriend’s bullet-ridden body.
He had met with friends to ask them if he could buy a gun and pulled out a roll of cash. The friends, including two nicknamed “Gucci” and “Sleepy,” responded by opening fire and taking the money, according to a criminal complaint.
They’re now facing charges in a city that is 10th in the nation for violent crime, ranks No. 2 for car thefts and has experienced a spike in homicides in recent years.
Local politicians have blamed the situation on problems ranging from a police officer shortage to the opioid epidemic. Others point to a justice system seen as having a revolving door that puts repeat offenders back on the street.
As President Donald Trump seeks re-election and tries to portray himself as being tough on crime, he included Albuquerque earlier this summer among the Democrat-led cities where he has dispatched more federal law enforcement agents to beef up local policing efforts.
Trump highlighted the slaying of Jacqueline Vigil, a mother of two New Mexico state police officers. The Albuquerque resident, who had fled violence in her home country of Colombia, was shot dead last year in her driveway as she prepared to leave for the gym.
With Vigil’s two sons at his side last month, Trump railed against the leadership in cities like Albuquerque that he insisted “need help.”
“They need it badly. They should call. They should want it. They’re too proud or they’re too political to do that,” Trump said.
Set along the Rio Grande Valley and bordered by desert mesas on one side and mountains on the other, Albuquerque’s metropolitan area is home to about 600,000 people. Many have felt unsafe for years amid frequent reports of travelers’ vehicles getting ransacked in hotel parking lots and home burglaries where thieves have even made off with urns containing the remains of loved ones.
At the popular Monroe’s Restaurant, the family owners hired a private security company to monitor the restaurant and its parking lot, where they’ve found hypodermic needles and where an employee’s car was broken into recently, said Matthew Diaz, the restaurant’s operations director.
Monica Griego said her car has been broken into five times over the last three years and that cars have been stolen from the parking lot of Calvary Church, where she works in community relations with the church radio station.
“I’ve never felt so fearful,” said Griego, 55, a longtime resident. “I can’t sleep at night. I have this anxiety that someone is going to break into my car again.”
Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller insists the city is making progress in addressing crime. He recently introduced the officials who will lead the city’s new violence intervention program, saying it will help community members and law enforcement “find crucial common ground, build new relationships, and significantly reduce gun crime in their neighborhoods.”
Keller and fellow New Mexico Democrat politicians bristled at Trump’s July move to send agents to Albuquerque. Pointing to the presence of federal authorities in Portland, Oregon, during protests there, they voiced concerns about extra officers in Albuquerque being used for political purposes.
U.S. Attorney John Anderson of New Mexico has defended the deployment, saying the agents are involved in what he called “classic crime-fighting.”
They are working with local police officers, sheriff’s deputies and prosecutors to investigate cases and serve search warrants. Since the agents arrived, 16 people in Albuquerque have been charged with offenses involving firearms, drugs, carjacking and other crimes, federal officials have said.
There have been previous federal crime-fighting partnerships between Albuquerque and the federal government. The city also remains under U.S. Department of Justice-ordered reforms following a scathing 2014 report over a series of police shootings and repeat accusations of excessive force.
Critics of the Albuquerque Police Department, including the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, want a revamping of the department including how officers interact with the public and increased accountability. They are demanding quicker release of lapel or dash camera footage and for officers to be held accountable when they violate policies.
And the APD Forward group advocating for police reforms raised questions this month about police shootings, including the shooting of the co-owner of a bar and pizzeria who was killed after he reportedly called 911 seeking help.
Albuquerque police spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said an investigation is underway and that it includes video and audio from officers’ body cameras that will be made public when the final report is released. The police department has said that it’s improving officer training overall and building community trust following meetings with the public to comply with ordered reforms.
The latest non-preliminary federal crime statistics from 2018 show that Albuquerque’s crime rate was more than 3.5 times the national average. An Associated Press analysis of violent crime rates per 100,000 people put Albuquerque as No. 10 in the nation, just behind Stockton, California. Detroit was No. 1.
In a slight bit of good news for New Mexico, the National Insurance Crime Bureau reported in July that Bakersfield, California, overtook Albuquerque for the top spot for auto theft after Albuquerque held the spot for three years in a row.
In many ways, Albuquerque and its problems with crime are no different than other cities with neighborhoods with pervasive economic inequality, poverty and a lack of decent and affordable housing, said Christopher J. Lyons, a University of New Mexico sociology professor who studies crime and race.
He said he was also concerned that recent bail reforms allowing more people accused of crime to stay out of jail pending trial were enacted without services like housing and additional treatment for the suspects.
“Without addressing this inequality in areas like housing, you might see increases in violent crime,” Lyons said.
Darren White, a former sheriff of Bernalillo County, which encompasses Albuquerque, said he’s convinced that crime is out of control in the city.
The officer shortage is compounded by a change in tactics by Albuquerque police that makes them more reactive to crime instead of proactive, said White, who is now a radio talk show host.
“Officers are just overwhelmed,” White said. “It’s hard for them to respond to all of this.”