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FBI assembles 177 active cases of Indigenous people missing from N.M. and Navajo Nation

Scan of databases is the first attempt by law enforcement to quantify the crisis after pressure mounts for years
Federal and state officials look on as Raul Bujanda, special agent in charge at the Albuquerque FBI Field Office, announces the first official list of missing Native Americans in New Mexico and across the Navajo Nation. (Shaun Griswold/Source NM)

Walcie Downing was last seen in 1956. Her case is the oldest on the list. Brittney Clinton, Clark Lanaya and Jimmy Owens were last seen a few days ago, on July 14. They are the latest additions.

According to the FBI, 177 Native Americans are missing from New Mexico and the Navajo Nation.

The FBI’s list of missing Native Americans in New Mexico and across the Navajo Nation can be seen below and at www.fbi.gov/mmip. People with information about any case are asked to contact their local FBI office. Anyone who wants to add a person to the list is to contact local police.

The FBI’s list, released Monday, comes from a lengthy review of existing law enforcement databases tracking missing cases involving Native Americans. The FBI spent six months compiling the information.

The majority of the cases were reported within the last five years, though there are some from the 1970s through the 1990s. But a case like Downing’s that goes back more than 60 years shows the scope of systemic failure when it comes to finding justice for missing or murdered Native Americans in this region, and across the country.

One-hundred and seventy-seven. That number is key in part because it’s the first time law enforcement found some agreement about how many active cases exist.

After an examination of all agencies that keep files on missing Native American cases in this area, the FBI consolidated the information into a single database to determine there are 177 active cases in the state and from the Navajo Nation.

That number does not include open murder investigations or cold cases.

Awareness of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives rose through social media posts – #MMIW #MMIWR – into federal policy. And as the public pressure grew, law enforcement explained that inconsistent reporting between police agencies did not allow them to understand exactly how many people this affects. Community groups agreed, lifted the issue, and asked when and how information-sharing and paperwork problems could be resolved so more relatives could be brought home.

In an attempt to address inconsistencies when missing persons reports are filed, the FBI said its new database will be a centralized and easier way for all law enforcement – local, state, tribal and federal – to submit the information.

“I want to make this clear that it’s not a finished product. It’s only a starting point,” said Raul Bujanda, special agent in charge at the Albuquerque FBI Field Office.

Bujanda announced the new database flanked by federal and state officials. New Mexico Secretary of Indian Affairs Lynn Trujillo said it’s a solid starting point in determining how many people are missing.

Trujillo (Sandia/Taos/Acoma) administers the New Mexico MMIWR Task Force. The group has long called for a centralized database where all law enforcement agencies file cases of people who’ve gone missing. In May 2022, the task force released an action plan that highlights issues caused by police agencies not communicating with one another.

“This will help us better understand the depth of the crisis here in New Mexico, which is something that the task force found in their report, in the beginning of their work,” Trujillo said. “We still did not understand how many people are truly missing here in the state of New Mexico.”

Families seeking answers have reported instances of cases jumping between agencies, or worse, situations where police are unable to determine who has jurisdiction on a case. This wastes valuable time in the immediate hours after a person goes missing.

Staffing in rural police departments is another issue – one that leaves local police to rely on federal resources when they are available.

Families reporting missing relatives sometimes wait days before an officer responds to file an initial report. Follow-up reports, when they happen, can take weeks, months or even years.

“That was the reason why we started, because that number was so inconsistent. And everyone was doing the right thing,” Bujanda said. “They were collecting missing data on individuals to try to find these individuals, but the problem is we weren’t doing it collectively. It was all patchwork.”

During the review to build this new database, the FBI acknowledged multiple gaps in communication.

“The data was incomplete in many places,” Bujanda said. “And some agencies were reporting different data – no fault of their own – but in different ways.”

The publicly available information about these cases is also limited. Not every case has a picture of the person who’s missing. There is no information about tribal affiliations, or where the last person was seen and under what circumstances.

Bujanda said this is all part of the next phase in building out this tool, but first he wants to get it in the hands of law enforcement across New Mexico.

In September, the FBI will begin outreach to set up free training for local law enforcement about how to use the new database. Existing models for reporting and sharing information about missing people can still be used, but the FBI wants this one to be specified for cases involving Native Americans.

The system will be brand new for many police agencies across the state, and it could become a model nationally. The New Mexico Department of Public Safety is the first in the nation to modify its National Crime Information Center missing person form to require tribal affiliation status to add their cases to this federal database.

As for the 177 people listed by the FBI, the police agency says it is reviewing each case again to find possible leads. The FBI also asks anyone with a missing persons case that is not yet included to contact their local or tribal police department and ask to file a report.

How does it look when agencies responsible for investigating these cases cooperate and work to communicate together? Bujanda shared a recent example. He said someone in California contacted the city of Albuquerque’s Office of Equity and Inclusion seeking to find a person’s next of kin. That office contacted the FBI, which found family for the person through their Four Corners offices and contacts within the Navajo Nation.

“It provided closure to that family,” Bujanda said. “And that is something that just has not happened prior to this initiative.”

For more stories from Source NM, visit sourcenm.com.