De-simplifying notions of crime, violence, and policing on the streets of Albuquerque


Friday was a slow night for the APD Gang Unit.  Cold drizzling rain kept the rollers indoors, leaving the streets to those simply too drunk to know the difference.  Above, (1) a highly intoxicated couple is found passed out on the side of the road near Central Ave. and Louisiana. Police wake them up, test to see if they can walk in more or less one direction, and order them off to a safer place to pass out.  (2 and 3) Shortly afterward, a car is reported to have driven into a house near Constitution and San Mateo.  Easily exceeding 100 mph, the intoxicated driver and his two passengers had jumped a curb, flown over an intersection and two entire yards to land squarely into someone’s living room.  The homeowner was in the bathroom at the time, having had to take a pee break while watching a movie.  No one died.  Here, the bloody hand of a girl is miraculously the only injury she sustained while in the flying car’s passenger seat. Later in the evening, a call in the Northeast Heights reporting a man shooting an assault rifle provoked an hour-long manhunt with some thirty participating police officers.  It turned out to be a drunk father playing Airsoft gun battles with his kids.  The man was given a hefty lecture and then left to be. (photos by Michael Wolff)

Renegade City Keeper
Douglas Muha, founder of Ordo Dei Imperceptus, a citizen justice organization in Albuquerque, New Mexico. (photo by MJW)

Renegade City Keeper

Douglas Muha, founder of Ordo Dei Imperceptus, a citizen justice organization in Albuquerque, New Mexico. (photo by MJW)

Citizen Security: The Story of a Renegade

There are so very many elements involved in the design of the modern state.  So many ideas and ideals conflicting with one other and lapping, sometimes violently, up against impervious social structures and entrenched interests.  As a child it all just seemed to be the natural way of things.  The State and its institutions were no less a part of the natural order than the blue in the sky, and my eye was untrained to see how it is constantly evolving just as is the mass of humans out of which it grew and upon which it is sustained.  It is a massive temple built upon a long history of triumphs and defeats, a living monument to glory and tragedy that long outlives all of its winners and all of its losers.  And yet its essence is delicate, its purpose and practice deeply contested, and its future always uncertain. 

 [The above is nothing more than a highly tangential descent into incorrigible abstraction, a proclivity grown greater the longer I sit in a chair, repeat transit routes to and from fewer and fewer points, and scuttle the world outside for a swim through my on mind.  Forgive me.]

 My thoughts thusly floated as I interviewed Douglas Muha, founder of the citizen justice organization Ordo Dei Imperceptus (ODI), over coffee at the Village Inn.   ODI began recruiting volunteers in Albuquerque in 2007 to enforce legal and social norms where the police were either unwilling or unable to do so.  At its peak, Muha commanded thirteen fulltime volunteers to provide personal protection to stalking and domestic violence victims, carry out surveillance of human trafficking rings, and run a “downtown patrol” to break up fights and make citizens’ arrests for acts of felony; a variety of both uniformed and undercover proto-police crime prevention/repression activities. 

 Although it “takes the law into its on hands,” ODI’s philosophy is strictly anti-vigilante.  It is, rather, an impassioned libertarian/Christian organization whose existence hopes to deter the growth of the State by pushing society to be proactive in the enforcement of its norms instead of delegating this task to a state bureaucracy.  It is, in fact, a rather admirable expression of anarchism: a volunteer association dedicated to eliminating the need for the coercive force of the State.  This, of course, is only a matter of degree, however.  ODI does practice coercive force—and its volunteers openly carry handguns as well as nonlethal weaponry—and furthermore its practical objective is to work alongside and in conjunction with the heavy hand of the law instead of to supplant it. 

 Since domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking have the poorest prosecution and conviction rates—that is, violent crimes against women—ODI has focused most of its energies here.  Their services are made available free of charge to anyone who is being stalked, harassed, or threatened.  Following the classic “continuum of force” reaction models used by most police, ODI hopes first to deter crime by simply being present with a loaded weapon at hip.  However, ODI volunteers are trained to respond at both extremes of the continuum, thus the do not exclude the use of lethal violence.  “One of these days,” says Muha, “either one of our guys will get shot or will have to shoot someone.  We need to be prepared for that.”

 Perhaps as to be expected, the police have at best mixed feelings about Muha and his volunteers.   Sargeant Paul Sykes of the APD’s Stalking Unit has been outspoken in his disdain for “untrained citizens” who try to do police work as a hobby.  The Bernalillo County Sheriff bumped heads with Muha over ODI’s black and tan uniforms, arguing that they looked too much like their own officers.  After a crime scene blotch during one of ODI’s weekend “downtown patrols,” the APD Gang Unit attempted an undercover operation to catch Muha in a breach of law.  Muha was detained when he made a citizens’ arrest of three undercover cops who had claimed to have nine grams of marijuana in their car. 

 Despite the mixed feelings, however, Muha claims many success stories.  By stalking stalkers both on the street and online, he has been able to present the DA with enough criminal evidence to prosecute several offenders who otherwise would have been completely off the judicial radar.  He claims that ODI’s surveillance work has also led to the shutdown of a number of illegal massage parlors that forcibly exploit sex workers.  Although limited in scope now, he sees a larger future for ODI and other likeminded voluntary associations that, while not replacing the armed wing of the State altogether, could someday reduce our far from fully effective dependence on bureaucratized law enforcement.    

 For the time being, however, ODI has suspended most of its operations.  Its operating funds had been provided by the sale of donated furniture, but when Muha’s van broke down on the side of the road last February and had to be towed, someone stole the furniture trailer that was left behind.  The camel’s back was precariously weak to begin with, and that was the last straw.  With no gas and no food, most of the volunteers have gone back home to wait for a more opportune time for citizen justice.  There is one exception: ODI still offers a low-charge “Designated Driver Service” for all you alcoholics out there who can’t put down that bottle. 

 So, then, what was all that initial jabber about the modern State? Just the early symptoms of my certain demise, that is all.  

The West Mesa of Albuquerque 
Thankfully, the majority of the approximately one thousand people reported missing in Albuquerque each year are soon located, and in the case of teenage runaways, sent home.  But many others suffer a darker fate.  An untold number of souls may be buried in the vast expanse of virtual nothingness that is the West Mesa, such as were the eleven women killed and dumped by a serial killer during the early 2000s.  (photo by Michael Wolff-note: altar depicted is not related to the Mesa Graves)

The West Mesa of Albuquerque

Thankfully, the majority of the approximately one thousand people reported missing in Albuquerque each year are soon located, and in the case of teenage runaways, sent home.  But many others suffer a darker fate.  An untold number of souls may be buried in the vast expanse of virtual nothingness that is the West Mesa, such as were the eleven women killed and dumped by a serial killer during the early 2000s.  (photo by Michael Wolff-note: altar depicted is not related to the Mesa Graves)

MIA in Albuquerque

Between 2001 and 2005, eleven young women and an unborn baby were murdered and then buried in pre-dug graves in an arroyo near the site of the newly constructed Atrisco Heritage Academy High School in southwest Albuquerque.  The graves were discovered in 2009 when a woman’s dog fetched her a human femur, soon after which the “118th Street Murders”, also known as the “Mesa Graves”, brought Albuquerque a horrid new notoriety. 

 All of the victims had been reported missing years ago, but investigation into their whereabouts was lost to the dusty file bins of the Albuquerque Police Department’s Homicide Unit, which in 2009 housed more than 350 unsolved missing persons cases.  In fact, many of those cases should have been null and void.  Several of the persons once missing had long been discovered either living or dead, yet no one had pulled the files.  The rest, which included cold murder and rape cases, largely sat ignored while record yearly homicide rates absorbed the time and energy of APD’s few homicide detectives. 

 Spectacular events, like, say, a massacre, often create a window of opportunity through which institutional change or policy reform can occur.  The Mesa Graves compelled APD to create a fulltime taskforce to investigate the murders, and out of this a separate Missing Persons Unit, a Cold Case Unit, and a Runaways Unit were born, which taken together have dramatically increased the priority level with which the police deal with Albuquerque residents who up and vanish.  So far this year, for example, the Missing Persons Unit (encompassing all four subunits) has “solved” 905 disappearances, ten more than the total reported since January. 

 The vast majority of disappearances, to be fair, are nothing more scandalous than the bratty whims of self-absorbed teenagers.  That is, of the nearly one hundred reports of runaway teens each month, most have simply violated their parents’ grounding to binge with friends.  While the Runaways Unit is obligated to investigate all of these inglorious cases, running away is not illegal in New Mexico, such that this “cops-as-parents” detective work often amounts to a copious waste of time. 

 That said, a number of the runaways are suicidal or otherwise “at risk.”  Others are abducted, and some have even been forced into interstate human trafficking networks.  Among the eleven women found on the West Mesa, three were all of fifteen years old when they were reported missing. 

 Second only to teen depression and angst, the most common cause of human disappearance is mental illness, and in particular, degenerative diseases that affect the elderly.  The tendency for old people suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s to simply forget where they are going or how they got there is so great that the City of Albuquerque organized a multi-agency program in 2012 called the “Silver Alert,” which attempts to tag the wrists of willing elders with a GPS sensor.  The spectacular case of an elderly couple who disappeared last winter, after which the woman froze to death and the man was found naked and confused for a sick animal, spawned more serious action from the City Government and advocacy groups.

 However, perhaps the most classic and the most illusive category of disappearees is that of the street-level prostitute.  Notwithstanding nobler echelons of the sex trade, particularly where it is legal, regulated, and its workers somewhat protected, street level prostitution in Albuquerque is arguably among the most dangerous and thankless dead-end jobs in human history.  The number of local prostitutes reported missing since the Mesa Graves discovery has gone down, but the industry continues with no safety nets.   Pursued by the police, imprisoned by addiction, hounded and bound to violent pimps, and regularly beaten and raped by clients, street level prostitution is not far from Hell on Earth. 

 Ironically, one of the key suspects of the 118th Street Murders was shot dead by a local pimp in 2006 who was checking on the welfare of one of his girls.  Alongside the dead client, police found the lifeless body of a prostitute wrapped in a blanket in the man’s trailer home.  It takes an obscene evil to turn an Albuquerque pimp into a hero.

 And, of course, a significant number of persons reported missing have simply gone to an isolated place to quiet the voices in their head and stop the pain, but that is for a post I may never write. 

 Finally, a new category of missing persons has appeared on APD’s books in the last two or three years, but few are talking about it.  Mexican drug cartels are the main suspect in at least four missing persons cases in Albuquerque this year, including a 12-year old boy.  But according to detectives this is probably a mere fraction of the actual number of people killed and disappeared by cartels operating in Albuquerque.  Due to issues with victims’ immigration status and/or loved ones/families/associates’ fears of reprisal, few such cases are reported to the police, and the bodies very professionally disappear into thin air.  Official silence on the matter is the political equivalent of a middle-aged man crossing his fingers while trying to ignore a pain in his prostate.  We will wait and see what the future of drug wars holds for us in the Land of Enchantment.

 Meanwhile, the case that expanded and professionalized APD’s Missing Persons Unit continues unsolved.  One suspect is dead, but eight more are currently being investigated.  Several self-acclaimed serial killers have written letters to the police claiming personal responsibility, indicating that such a perverse fame is not such an uncommon fantasy.  Filtering through wannabes and false tips, APD detectives have gotten search warrants in several states chasing leads anywhere they will take them, but resolution is still far away. 

 On the bright side, the notorious “Ether Man”—the man who broke into homes of single women in Albuquerque and various other cities for years, knocking his victims out with a chemical rag before raping them—was just sentenced yesterday to 156 years in prison.  At the sentencing, the mother of one of his victims stood up and expressed to the rapist her sincerest hopes that he “sit and rot alone for the rest of his pathetic life.” 

 I will second that motion.  

The Marigold Parade in the South Valley of Albuquerque celebrates Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.  Civic, economic, and political groups from all over the city march to express their various interests to a highly participant and diverse crowd of people expressing themselves personally in connection with an old tradition of hanging with the dead.  Here death is made beautiful in the face of a young girl. (photo by Michael Wolff)

The Marigold Parade in the South Valley of Albuquerque celebrates Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.  Civic, economic, and political groups from all over the city march to express their various interests to a highly participant and diverse crowd of people expressing themselves personally in connection with an old tradition of hanging with the dead.  Here death is made beautiful in the face of a young girl. (photo by Michael Wolff)

A Cartel Execution

A former student of mine at the University of New Mexico came to my office recently to shoot the shit about the drug wars here and in his home country of Mexico.  He shared with me personal story of violence in Northern Mexico which I found compelling enough that I asked him to write it down for me.  It thus follows:

It was the day after my sister’s Quienceñera, an event that occurs traditionally when Mexican women turn the age of fifteen to celebrate their transition to womanhood. That day, July 19, 2008, I experienced something that changed my emotions, attitude and perspective towards my country of nationality, Mexico. I was sixteen at the time.

It was around two o’clock in the afternoon in the town of Villa Ahumada, Chihuahua, about 70 miles south of the infamous city of Juarez. The town is known by passing tourists for its eating posts and lively people, who make a living selling homemade food on the side of the road. The main road is parallel to the only stores there are. The stores make the town a good stop for a quick lunch or to grab snacks before continuing on the deserted road ahead.

That day, we were returning to our home in New Mexico when my father decided he wanted to stop and buy some goods to bring along. At that time we were driving my father’s f -250 Ford pickup. We parked along the railroad tracks that also run parallel to the main road. My grandma and uncle were also with us. My uncle went shopping at a different store while my father went somewhere else and witnessed the event from a different perspective. I recall having heard a strange conversation between a store clerk and someone with a walkie-talkie in what seemed like a coded language.

Boggled by the conversation, I decided to go back to the truck where my grandma had been waiting. My father had to finish paying the clerk. When I was sitting there in the driver seat I noticed an old Ford Taurus with a man inside parked about one car’s length in front of our truck. Ten to fifteen seconds later, a nice black Escalade passed right by our truck in a hurry and stopped in front of the Taurus.  At the same time, my father was about to get in through the passenger’s side. However, he immediately told me, “Turn on the truck and go in reverse, fast!” Simultaneously there had just arrived another vehicle in a rush, which barricaded the Taurus from the back. I didn’t know what was happening, but I knew something wasn’t right.

Four men dressed in all black uniforms and ski masks rushed out of the Escalade. Each one of them had an assault rifle, all gold-plated AK-47s. Two men got out of the other vehicle, a white Ford f 150, also carrying assault rifles. The man in the Taurus was defenseless against the attackers. He was taken out of his car by force and hit on the head with the butt of a rifle, knocking him to the ground. And then they executed him with machine gun fire.

 While this was happening, all I could do was turn on the truck, put it in reverse and step on the gas while instinctively ducking behind the dash board and trying avoid the cars behind me. The men rapidly finished their mission by creating an uproar of bullets in the air to scare the people around, and then fled to the houses behind the stores.

The only thing that was going through my mind at that time was where my father and uncle were and why I had just witnessed a real event of depriving someone’s life, all in broad daylight. After driving around in search of my relatives for ten minutes, I finally found them safe but worried. By the time I had found them, soldiers and military personnel began to arrive.

I found out from the local news source that the person they had executed was the chief of police from the town of Villa Ahumada. Seventy bullet casings were found at the scene of the crime.  It was a hit by one cartel over another to establish authority and presence in that territory. From that day I have had a different attitude towards Mexico. Witnessing this not only allowed me to comprehend the reality of Mexico’s drug war, but also realize there is greater problem deeply rooted. This event is an example of the life that people experience daily and are bound to at any given time.  It should not be like this. A place where safety and governance are arbitrary is not a place to have a quality of life, in my opinion. 

"Rape: A Low-Priority Crime"

Around three hundred incidents of rape are reported to the Albuquerque Police Department each year.  Nearly twice this number are registered at the Rape Crisis Center and S.A.N.E. (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) program. Some specialists estimate that an equal or greater number of rape and sexual assault incidents in Albuquerque are not reported at all.

 Across the United States, only 24 percent of all rapes reported to the police result in the suspect’s arrest.[1]  18 percent are prosecuted in a court of law, 10 percent lead to a conviction, and about 6 percent lead to jail time.  Considering pandemic underreporting, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) estimates that less than 3 percent of all rapists will ever spend time behind bars.  In New Mexico, the number of women likely to suffer rape or attempted rape in their lifetime (one in four)[2] is six percentage points higher than the national average, and the likelihood perpetrators will be arrested, prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to time in prison is lower. 

 Taken together, we might conclude that our justice system has utterly failed to punish and deter sexual violence, and that rape is the felonious violent crime to get away with in America.  Forgiving the overburdened justice system for just a moment, we might also indict society at large, because our apparently high societal tolerance for sex without consent effectively reduces our legal statutes to a mere normative suggestion.  And like many normative suggestions that are inconsistent with actual norms, we ignore them. 

 And so we see an enormous discrepancy between formal legal statues and actual punitive outcomes.  While New Mexico law mandates an 18-year prison sentence for criminal sexual penetration in the first degree, perpetrators sentenced to prison spend on average less than one year behind bars.  Meanwhile, the District Attorney’s violent crimes division is heavily backlogged, such that rape cases—“a low priority crime”—often take years before they are brought to trial.[3]  Even when police investigations are made and forensic evidence is ample, victims frequently drop their own cases amid the attrition of time.  As most rape cases are ultimately decided on “he said/she said” evidence, there is no case without a victim. 

 Now, considering an estimated 97 percent failure rate for convicting perpetrators of rape, is it reasonable to ask if rape is perhaps not such a heinous crime after all, and that this is why its prohibition is so poorly enforced?  Perhaps, like J-walking or tearing the tags off of mattresses, it is something we have codified as illegal but which we all know deep down is a matter of total inconsequence.  Perhaps the vast majority of rapes—those that are not “legitimate” rapes at least—are as inconsequential as and indistinguishable from that low-life you brought home from the bar while your beer goggles were still on.  Perhaps rape is just bad, regrettable sex, the likes of which sexual assault defense attorneys will assure to the jury the victim always had on a very regular and very slutty basis.  Perhaps the entire concept of rape should even be turned on its head, and be thought of as a choice on the part of the victim.  Like smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol, it is an unhealthy choice, but one for which the addict/victim has no one but herself to blame. 

 But alas, let me be frank: to believe rape is anything but a heinous crime against humanity is to believe bull shit.

 And it is equally heinous that we have done so little to stop it. 

Post Script:

I have lost sleep over many injustices, some of which have occurred under my nose or before my eyes.  I have seen the rich systemically and unceremoniously crush the poor. I have seen the poor crush one another in desperate and stupid bets to diminish their relative misery.  I have seen the wretched and their gods crush me, take away my loved ones, my hard earned things, my dignity.  I have seen a good many lives so pointlessly mutilated by hate, jealousy, or greed, and their corpses so mutilated by bullets, knives, and tropical heat.  But of all this that in one foul utterance we can call life, nothing has haunted my dreams so much as the pervasive and persistently ignored tragedy of sexual violence in every place I have been. 

[1] Tofte, Sarah (2012) The Unfinished Revolution: Voices from the Global Fight for Women’s Rights. Seven Stories Press.

[2] Caponera, Betty. (2007) Sex Crimes in New Mexico V1: An Analysis of 2006 Data from NMCSA

[3] Quoted from interview with Carol McFall, Executive Director of RCCCNM. 

                                                 Saturday with the Gang Unit

(1 and 6) Madly drunk drivers divert absurd quantities of time and energy from all police, even specialized units whose purpose is to target violent crime; (2) An 18-year old caught lying about his name and carrying a small amount of heroin was un-cuffed and told to run away as fast has he could.  His liberty was given in exchange for a promise to call the gang unit within two weeks to provide information about a double homicide in March; (3) A bar fight at El Madrid and a misleading 911 call provoked a strong police response; (4) A cuffed participant of the El Madrid bar fight awaits medical attention; (5) 17-year old “Loco Bird” of the Westside gang proudly represents after politely responding to a police inspection.  He says he is going to start ninth grade soon at a local charter school.  In the meantime, he is cruising downtown Albuquerque “looking for women”.  (photos by Michael Wolff)

Gangs of Albuquerque

In Albuquerque, the mayor responded to rising violent crime rates by tripling the size of its Gang Unit in 2010, which now boasts a fifteen-member team split into a plain-clothes squad dedicated to undercover investigative work and a uniformed task force to patrol the entire city of Albuquerque. 

I requested a ride-a-long with the unit to try to learn what is real and what is not about gangs on the streets of the city I usually call home.  This post therefore reflects the perspective of the police.  Future posts will explore the complex workings of gang life from the perspective of current and ex-gang members.  

The Gangs

According to the police, there are as many as 246 active gangs in Albuquerque and a total of 7,700 documented gang members.  This number is deceiving considering the enormous diversity in size, structure, and purpose of these groups.  Like so many things, a “gang” is little more than a loose concept used to describe a great many social phenomena for which multiple connotations exist.  Gangs are often defined minimally as groups of at least three individuals who identify themselves as a group and who routinely engage in some kind of illegal activity.  But as this definition qualifies perhaps half of Albuquerque’s young people, substantial discretion is needed to concretely identify who is a real gang member and who is a “poser”; that is, who is a danger to society and who is innocuous.  

Of the 246 gangs in the APD registry, the vast majority will likely not exist in any real sense within a few years.  Lacking structure, scope, and a unifying principle beyond pop culture imagery and youth itself, most gangs will disintegrate as some members go off to prison and others simply grow out of troubled adolescence and into an equally troubled but less organizationally cohesive adulthood. 

 Among the gangs that endure, we might distinguish two basic models: traditional gangs and contemporary gangs.  Traditional gangs, those which were born out of the 1950s and 1960s, and which became distinctly politicized during the civil rights and Chicano’s movements, tend to be much more organized than most contemporary street gangs.  That is, they have a more rigid hierarchy of actors, a stricter and better enforced internal code of ethics, and a more stable group identity.  They are classically territorial and family oriented.  They are, to some degree, families of multiple generations who occasionally adopt new members into the bloodline.  And because they have been in the same neighborhoods for many generations, they have become a semi-accepted part of the community.  As a result, an effective code of silence in these communities seriously impedes police investigation of their criminal activities. 

 Perhaps the largest and most structured among these is the Los Padillas gang, which runs crime in the far South Valley of Albuquerque.  The organization is allegedly controlled by the untouchable biological father of the late Johnny Tapia, Jerry Padillas, Sr.  Jerry’s other sons, nephews, and cousins make up the group’s top leadership, while Jerry himself maintains a good relationship with several local politicians, including ex-state senator Manny Aragon.  Despite numerous undercover operations by City and County narcotics police, as well as the DEA, the Los Padillas gang has proved resilient to both law enforcement and the encroachment of other gangs on their territory. 

 Most of the other traditional gangs, such as the San Jose, Barelas, Martinez Town, and Duranes gangs have not faired so well.  Heroin addiction and prison sentences have decimated the old guard since the 1980s, leaving the younger generations to fend for themselves without a mature spiritual guidance.  Numerous splits resulted, and have left space open for new gangs to drift into their territory.  Because one of the sources of police intelligence comes from enemy gang members, territorial encroachment has had a particularly devastating effect.  Some traditional gangs, like El Washe and the Wells Park gangs, have virtually gone extinct as a result of such trends.

 Contemporary gangs like Westside, Eastside, Southside, Northside, 18th Street, Bloods, and Crips—and their innumerous subgroups—are characterized by a much younger and more reckless membership.  They are less stable and more violent. Their sense of territoriality is much less developed, as their communities are characteristically more transient and otherwise rapidly changing.  Their identities, in fact, are altogether looser than their traditional counterparts.  Their unifying principles are often based on symbols derived from pop culture emanating via airwaves from New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles rather than from tangible commonalities around them.  Gang loyalty is far less guaranteed, such that rats for the police abound.  Further, they are often loved little by the communities they live in, such they are rarely protected by a neighborhood code of silence.

 Taken together, contemporary youth gangs in Albuquerque are fodder for the justice system.  They are both highly criminal and bad at getting away with it.  They are by no means efficient criminal enterprises, rather they are problematic expressive outlets for masculine identity development. 

 There are also a small number of so-called motorcycle gangs, which typically are run more like illegal businesses fit with elaborate divisions of labor, and prison gangs, which are structured umbrella organizations for numerous street gangs that out of necessity for protection in close quarters find temporary unity while in the “clink.”

 The main problem with all of it is that gang identity, when one has little else to feel proud of, can easily be enough to kill or die for.  And the killing and dying associated with gangsters is what makes us all a bit uncomfortable about the matter.  Whether this discomfort has led to policies that reduce or exacerbate the problem is another question.