By Andrew Hay
ISLETA PUEBLO, N.M. (Reuters) - As Detective Kathleen Lucero drives along a dirt road towards the Manzano mountains east of her New Mexico Native American village, she recalls the time earlier in her career when an elder told his family he was heading this way to water his cows. He didn’t come back.
It was back in 2009 when Lucero was a patrol officer, learning how to stop her people becoming part of the U.S. epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women and relatives (MMIWR).
She filed a report on the elder. Her police chief told her that was not enough. Following that advice, she started networking with outside police agencies.
“We got a hit,” said Lucero, a member of a traditional Isleta family, whose mother disowned her for a week when she decided to join the pueblo’s police 17 years ago because she wanted to become an "advocate" for her people.
Nine hours after going missing on the Isleta Pueblo just south of Albuquerque, the elder was found over 400 miles away by an Oklahoma traffic cop after his car ran out of gas, Lucero said. He was showing early signs of dementia.
That case was an early lesson that Lucero took to heart.
These days, as Isleta Pueblo’s chief criminal investigator, Lucero does not judge a victim for doing drugs, or running away. She doesn’t wait for them to show up. She starts investigating, posting their name and photo on social media, calling law enforcement contacts, maybe even television stations. Since 2015 she has handled eight such cases, with seven people found alive and one still missing.
“I believe that somebody knows somebody, and it keeps networking,” said Lucero.
Her prioritization of missing people, backed by Isleta police chief Victor Rodriguez, is not the norm amongst U.S. and tribal law enforcement where a jurisdictional maze and lack of resources contribute to an estimated 4,200 indigenous cases remaining unsolved, according to over a dozen law enforcement officials and policymakers Reuters spoke to.
These gaps have led Native American police Reuters met with to take matters into their own hands, some forming their own missing units. Still, they remain a minority amongst tribes, most of which lack the funds and staff to make missing members a priority, according to law enforcement and lawyers.
Driven by decades of Native American activism, data showing the scale of the crisis, and the appointment of the United States' first ever Native American cabinet secretary Deb Haaland, the issue of missing indigenous people entered the U.S. mainstream in the last five years.
State taskforces, federal and local investigative units and data initiatives have sprung up, with tribal and federal law enforcement reporting improved coordination.
Even federal law enforcement officials admit that Native American police are severely underfunded by the federal government, which provides public safety to tribes through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). On many reservations and pueblos that leads to low staffing, substandard investigations or no investigations of missing cases.
Bryan Newland, who heads the Bureau of Indian Affairs as U.S. assistant secretary of the interior, acknowledged the agency’s lack of resources. He said the BIA’s new missing and murdered unit was trying to better coordinate investigations between federal, state and local agencies and provide agents for investigations, when their help was wanted.
“It's very complicated and complex to provide policing in Indian country, and I don't think I need to tell you what the consequence of that is,” Newland, a citizen of the Bay Mills Indian Community (Ojibwe), said in an interview.
MORE AT RISK
Factors ranging from poverty and a history of colonial oppression make Native American people disproportionately at risk of going missing. American Indian women and girls make up 15% of Minnesota’s female missing persons cases, for example, and 1% of the state’s population, according to the state’s taskforce.
“Very few tribes have the funds and staff available to make MMIWR a priority,” said Darlene Gomez, an Albuquerque lawyer who represents families in 17 missing Native American cases.
This year, Navajo police chief Daryl Noon was able to set up a detective unit separate from his police department’s overwhelmed criminal investigations team to probe the tribe’s missing cases, which average around 70 at any given time. “We've just become more active. Instead of sitting around and waiting for somebody else to do something,” Noon said. Navajo land spans parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.
Native American people frequently disappear in police jurisdictions off tribal land, leading to confusion over who has responsibility for a case, according to the law enforcement officials Reuters spoke to.
FBI data on missing and murdered Indigenous people shows little change from 2016 to the most recent report in 2021, when 1,554 people remained missing at the end of the year.
Stalling any improvement is a failure by law enforcement to cooperate between agencies, says New Mexico Attorney General Raul Torrez.
“It's extraordinarily challenging, in part because of the jurisdictional and legal sort of silos and divisions that we have to navigate,” said Torrez, who as district attorney in Albuquerque’s Bernalillo County tried to establish information sharing between agencies.
BRING YOU HOME
Reuters spoke to around a dozen families who either reported inaction by police agencies over their missing loved ones or jurisdictional turf battles around cases.
The BIA Missing and Murdered Unit (BIA MMU) was blocked by the FBI and Navajo Nation from investigating the 2020 murder of Zachariah Shorty, 23, whose body was found on the Navajo Nation near Kirtland, New Mexico, according to his mother, Vangie Randall-Shorty.
“These agencies can’t even work together to solve Zachariah’s case,” said Randall-Shorty.
Raul Bujanda, special agent in charge of the FBI’s New Mexico field office, said the agency's cooperation with other law enforcement agencies had improved. He and Noon declined to comment on the Shorty case specifically. The FBI in Washington declined further comment.
"We would never be closed up. I think those days are days of the past," said Bujanda, who is helping the FBI develop a missing persons list for Native Americans, starting with New Mexico.
Families of victims and their lawyers say police routinely blame missing Native American women for their own disappearance due to factors such as substance abuse — and it’s not just outsiders.
Reuters heard a December 2020 recording of a person who identified himself as a Navajo criminal investigator saying tribal member Jamie Yazzie, a nurse, would never have gone missing had she stayed home and looked after her children. The conversation was recorded by a person, who asked not to be named, speaking to the investigator on behalf of the family. Reuters could not confirm the identity of the investigator.
Yazzie's remains were found a year later on the Hopi Reservation. Her boyfriend Tre James was charged with her murder in 2022.
Navajo police chief Noon said the investigator’s comments were disturbing. Michael Henderson, head of the tribe's criminal investigation unit, declined to comment.
Lucero said police judging victims was one of the main reasons families did not come forward as soon as possible to report loved ones missing.
"I don't care if you were doing drugs and you left your kids," said Lucero, whose daughter is also a police officer. "I need to go find you and bring you back home."
(Reporting By Andrew Hay; Editing by Donna Bryson and Claudia Parsons)