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Shaun Griswold
Source New Mexico

When a person goes missing or is murdered in a tribal community, multiple policy agencies take part in the investigation.

New Mexico's Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives Task Force is just one entity that has spoken through recent years about how this can stall justice for families seeking answers.

Now, task force members have an ally with the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office heading into the 2022 legislative session.

The AG’s Office is pushing a bill that would not only establish the task force permanently but also forge a relationship with local communities to make it easier for all parties involved in a criminal investigation to consolidate efforts under the attorney general.

Mark Probasco, special assistant to AG Hector Balderas, spoke at last week’s task force meeting about the scope of the problem, even when agreements or memorandums of understanding have been worked out in advance.

“New Mexico has at least 120 distinct law enforcement agencies,” he said. “There’s 13 different district attorneys. And a lot of the problems that we’re seeing in the investigation of these cases and prosecution of them comes down to a failure to coordinate even with MOU-based approaches.”

MORE THAN HALF OF THE CASES

Native Americans make up 52 percent of all missing persons cases in New Mexico, according to the state’s MMIWR task force.

The state has 53 active cases involving people that are American Indian or Alaskan Native, according to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

Bringing in the AG’s Office to assist with cases would add yet another agency, but one of the benefits is that with statewide reach, staff there could centralize information for the checkerboard jurisdictions of tribal, federal and state agencies.

“Unlike a district attorney’s office, we’re not limited to, you know, a county or two counties,” Probasco said, “but we wanted to call it a consolidated forum.”

He said this idea formed from legislation that was passed in Montana, addressing the same problem of Indigenous people dying or going missing, and their cases going sideways.

With the bill, the Attorney General’s Office would look at the backlog of cases to see which are prosecutable.

Families still seeking answers

Albuquerque and Gallup, bordertowns where many Native Americans visit and live, are among the Top 10 cities in the U.S. with the highest number of cases involving Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives.

Those numbers could be even higher in reality, because reporting issues between law enforcement agencies mean some go uncounted.

Geraldine Toya, the mother of Shawna Toya, stands by the stage at Tiguex Park with a sign for her daughter and other missing women at the MMIWR rally on Oct. 3. (Photo by Shelby Kleinhans, Source NM)

Factor in cases where law enforcement determine no foul play when families have more questions than answers, and the number spikes even further.

Shawna Toya’s is one family seeking more answers. Toya was missing for hours when her body was found in her vehicle at Phil Chacon Park in Southwest Albuquerque on July 31, 2020, during the pandemic.

She left home with laundry and at least $800 cash to go get a money order for her rent payment, said her mother Geraldine Toya, Jemez and Laguna Pueblo. When she was discovered, she said, the money was gone, and a purse and ID from an unknown woman were left in her vehicle.

Albuquerque Police told Geraldine Toya her daughter’s death was a result of an overdose — something she has a hard time understanding.

“(Investigators) told me, they’re going to do an internal and external autopsy on my daughter,” Toya said. “Once they found out she was a Native, what did they do? ‘Oh she’s ready,’ didn’t even touch her at all, Just threw her in the freezer. And we didn’t even find out why she passed. So that’s not fair.”

Toya has no reason to believe her daughter used substances. Police also suggested that Shawna was homeless, leaving her family to wonder why police would make that assertion when she was on her way to pay rent.

Geraldine told Source NM that she is still pressuring law enforcement to reopen her daughter’s case, because she is convinced something foul happened to Shawna.

Probasco told the task force the legislation supported by the Attorney General’s Office will look to hire specialized staff that understands the matters of tribal communities, and has relationships with people from tribal areas and the bordertowns, like Albuquerque.

“You need to have prosecutors that are actually attuned to this problem,” he said. “But you also need someone who’s actually investigating these cases to get those successful outcomes from the point of view of potentially saving a life or of getting justice for a life that cannot be saved.”

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This story was originally published at Source New Mexico.