Gallup, New Mexico is notorious and deadly for Native people. Ranked as the most “dangerous city” in New Mexico by a 2014 FBI report, violent, unnatural deaths for Native people has become an everyday fact of life.
Gallup is also the county seat for McKinley County, the poorest county in New Mexico, and borders the Navajo Nation and the Pueblo of Zuni. The small city thrives on Navajo-generated business, and is a convenient 26-mile drive from Window Rock, Arizona, the capital of the Navajo Nation.
On January 7, 2015, the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission (NNHRC) held a hearing to discuss police brutality directed towards Navajo citizens, who make up almost half of the city’s 22,000 residents. Third in a series of hearings addressing border town law enforcement, several dozen people attended Wednesday’s meeting, including McKinley County Commissioners, members of the Gallup City Council, and the Gallup Police Department.
While the hearing focused on law enforcement, much of the testimony by Navajo citizens, city officials, and law enforcement concerned a larger, historical problem—the city’s liquor industry. With 39 liquor licenses, Gallup has about 19 alcohol-selling establishments per 10,000 people, much higher than most major cities.
“The liquor industry has a stranglehold on this city,” Mervin Tilden, a homeless Navajo man and advocate for homeless issues, testified, “and that stranglehold is killing our people.”
“This city has made money on the death of our people. This is blood money,” he said. “Native Americans are exploited for every penny possible, and then we are left for dead.”
“We are undesired and unwanted, except for our money,” Dr. Jennifer Denetdale, a NNHRC commissioner and Associate Professor of American Studies at UNM, echoed. She also reminded the audience Gallup is located in the ancestral territory of the Diné Nation, “We are not the aliens of Gallup.”
In 2014, 36 unnatural deaths were recorded for Natives in or around the Gallup area. Almost all were alcohol related or caused from being homeless. Seventeen of those deaths were caused by motorists killing pedestrians attempting to cross major thoroughfares or I-40. Nearly all the victims were Native. The 2015 winter began with record-setting deaths from exposure in McKinley County—12 as of January 14; all the victims were Native.
List of unnatural deaths of Natives in and around Gallup:
January 25: Ervin Shirley, 46, died, possibly from exposure.
January 29: Walter Sam, 69, died, possibly from exposure, in an arroyo.
February 8: Curtis Arviso, 34, died, possibly from exposure.
February 16: Wynona Brown, 24, killed by vehicle on New Mexico Highway 602.
February 22: Christopher Grayeagle, 32, was shot and killed by Gerald Wilson, 31, at a Gallup McDonald’s.
March 7: Norman Tuley, 54, was run over by a semi at a truck stop.
April 5: Donavan Atencio, 30, died in a rollover crash under the influence of alcohol.
April 8: Beverly Mitchell, 47, was hit and killed by a semi attempting to cross I-40.
May 5: Bradley Kaamasee, 23, was hit and killed by a vehicle while riding his bicycle on New Mexico Highway 264.
May 19: An unidentified woman was found dead near the BNSF railroad tracks.
May 24: Harold Begay, 42, was killed by a vehicle attempting to cross Route 66.
June 17: Harold Lee, 51, died of alcohol poisoning while in protective custody at the Gallup Detox Center.
June 14: Preston Tsosie, 46, was hit and killed by a vehicle attempting to cross I-40.
July 3: Kimberly Yazzie, 35, was murdered and found dead in a homeless camp.
July 4: Roberto Charles McCabe, 30, was hit and killed by a pickup truck on New Mexico 264.
July 9: An unidentified man was hit and killed while crossing New Mexico 264 near Rock Springs.
August 20: Curley Martin Jr., 18, was crushed to death by a pickup truck while sleeping in an alleyway.
August 23: Herbert Wood, 69, was hit and killed by a semi attempting to cross I-40.
September 23: Richard Smith, 26, was found dead along Twin Buttes Road in Mentmore.
September 30: Aaron Begaye, 38, was found murdered in a field. Unsolved.
October 12: Jones Larry, 26, was picked up by Marcos and Carlos Perez in Gallup and murdered near Manuelito.
October 18: Harrison Yazzie, 47, died in a DWI crash.
November 25: Sarah Tom, 67, was found dead in a field due to exposure.
November 27: George Morgan, 51, was hit and killed attempting to cross I-40.
December 5: Almando Lee, 48, found dead due to exposure behind Allsup’s.
December 5: Unidentified man found near 1-40, cause of death unknown.
December 7: Marcus McCabe, 24, was hit and killed by a pickup truck on U.S. 491.
December 7: Travis Silversmith, 44, was hit and killed by a vehicle attempting to cross I-40.
December 9: Unknown name, 36, was hit and killed by a suspected drunken driver while jogging on New Mexico 118.
December 12: Colt David, 30, was hit and killed by a vehicle on New Mexico 602. The driver fled the scene and was never apprehended.
December 20: Alfred Billy, 48, died after he was hit by a pickup truck while crossing Historic Highway 66.
December 22: Melbert Tom, 33, was found dead due to exposure in a field.
December 22: Unidentified man was found dead due to exposure in a field.
December 22: Unidentified body found dead due to exposure in a field.
December 30: Linda Carroll, 45, found dead due to exposure in a field.
December 31: Unidentified man was found dead due to exposure in a field.
January 2: Joseph Whitehip, 39, was found dead due to exposure in a field. Dogs mauled his remains.
January 2: Roger Yazzie, 54, was found dead due to exposure in a field.
January 6: Daniel Nez, 54, was found dead due to exposure in a field.
January 10: Unidentified was man found dead on a hill (possibly due to exposure).
“When I come to Gallup,” Dr. David Begay, adjunct faculty at Northern Arizona University, told the commission, “I feel like I’m not quite welcome.”
A ranch owner in the Navajo Nation near Gallup, he often comes to Gallup to shop and get supplies. Decades ago, Begay’s brother was murdered in the streets of Gallup. He felt the mentality then is the same now, “It’s just another Indian dead.”
The struggles for Natives living on the streets are historic, Teddy Nez, a homeless Navajo Vietnam veteran, said. He returned from war to find himself homeless. The 1974 Hopi-Navajo Land Settlement Act removed his family from their home. Nez found himself on the streets of Gallup, a casualty of two wars—one foreign and the other over highly-prized Navajo resources. He now lives at C.A.R.E. 66, a transitional housing service, and works on Native veterans’ rights in Gallup.
“I’m a little disappointed,” Elida Hale, a Navajo resident of Gallup, said, noting the empty seats in the auditorium. Liquor store and bar owners had not shown up to the meeting, neither did New Mexico State Police or McKinley County Sheriff’s department. “Where are they?” she demanded.
Steve Darden, NNHRC Chair and former city of Flagstaff judge, too, was disappointed. He referenced the NNHRC’s mission to inform Navajo citizens on their rights, as well as gather testimony and evidence on alleged human and civil rights abuses. NNHRC, he said, often “had to purchase high-priced ads in local newspapers to tell people about their rights.”
Darden also referenced the culture of violence permeating border towns, and specifically how the Albuquerque Police Department officers appeared to be “internally rewarded for the abuse of our [Navajo] people,” in regards to previous testimony and reports gathered at a similar Albuquerque hearing and a damning April 2014 Department of Justice report on the department’s “culture of aggression.”
That culture of aggression extends to more than Albuquerque, and to the entire state of New Mexico and United States. According to one report, Natives are the most likely to be killed by police officers than any group in the nation. Comprising only .8 percent of the U.S. population, Natives account for 1.9 percent of all police killings. That is about three times the rate for whites and just above the rate of killings by police of African Americans. New Mexico, according to the same report, ranks number one in deaths by police of any state in the U.S.
But Gallup is unique, when it comes to law enforcement and the city’s liquor industry.
Testifying before the NNHRC, Gallup Police Department Deputy Chief Allen John said the Gallup Police Department (GPD) receive two calls for every call Albuquerque police receive. In 2013, GPD received about 22,000 calls, he said, a number higher than some major cities like Chicago. In 2014, Allen expected that number to have increased by 30 to 40 percent. He estimated that 95 percent of calls were alcohol related.
Allen also admitted that GPD recommends local businesses hire private security to help police Gallup’s “transients” to alleviate the high influx of calls the GPD receives. Eight Community Service Aids, whom are all “Native American,” Allen claimed, and are employed by GPD, also pick up alcohol-related calls for “inebriates.”
Although uncertified, CSA officers count for a majority of the contacts between law enforcement and Native people on the street, detaining individuals appearing “under the influence” and hauling them off to the Gallup Detox Center, run by the Navajo Nation Behavioral Health Department.
CSA officers are authorized by the 1973 New Mexico Detoxification Act to place individuals under “protective custody,” since public intoxication is not a crime in the state. The law allows for a 72-hour hold of persons who: are disorderly in public; are unable to care for themselves; are incapacitated by drugs or alcohol; are likely to inflict serious injury to themselves; have threatened, attempted, or inflicted injury to themselves or others; or have threatened, attempted, or inflicted injury to another person’s property.
In Gallup, individuals are picked up mostly after GPD receives a call. CSA officers are the ones who use discretion to determine if an individual is intoxicated, without administering a field sobriety test or breathalyzer. Once in protective custody, they are taken to the detox center where a breathalyzer is administered, and are held for 12 hours or until completely sober. If an individual’s blood alcohol content (BAC) is .3 or higher (more than three times the legal limit), they are taken to hospital for treatment.
The constant policing pushes people “into the wash, into the ditches,” Denetdale said. Gallup has also recently passed “aggressive panhandling” and “no solicitation” laws to target the homeless population, forcing many to seek refuge on the outskirts of the city where they often die of exposure.
“Cities like Gallup create ordinances to push people out,” Denetdale said.
Given the rough treatment by CSA officers and the poor conditions of the detox center, Tilden said he, like many homeless, would rather sleep in “the brush.” He told the commission, “We at the street level have to fend for ourselves.”
“They refuse to give us our dignity as human beings,” he said.
Denetdale also noted how Native people on the street policed often has to do with how they are forced to live in public—sleeping, resting, eating, defecating. “Basic human rights, basic necessities, are criminalized,” she said.
At the end of the meeting Commissioner Darden asked one Gallup City Councilor, Linda Garcia, if she would like to respond to the testimony given that day. He asked her if she thought 39 liquor licenses were a major source of the problem.
“Absolutely,” she said. “We’re trying to get rid of as many as we can.”
Hours of gut-wrenching testimony took its toll on Garcia.
“No one has ever told you, as a Nation, ‘I’m sorry,’” she said tearfully. “I’m sorry.”
This story was originally published January 14, 2015.