[Ppnews] The Return of the Albuquerque Death Squads

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Nov 23 11:02:43 EST 2011

November 23, 2011

Police War on the Poor

The Return of the Albuquerque Death Squads



On November 13 of this year the Albuquerque 
police oversight commission cleared one of its 
own for the fatal shooting in September of 2010 
of 19-year old Chandler Barr. The officer, a 
bicycle cop on her first day on the job, shot the 
mentally ill Barr twice in the chest after he 
threatened her with a butter knife. Barr is one 
of 20 young men shot by Albuquerque police in the 
last two years, and one of 14 dead from their 
injuries. The long list of young men­mostly 
Hispanic and many of them mentally ill or drug 
users­incudes also Dominic Robert Smith shot and 
killed on October 1, 2009 by an officer that, 
according to Margaret Ann Saiz, Robert’s mother, 
“said that my soon looked like he was mentally 
retarded.” Smith was behaving erratically and 
shoving pills in his mouth when an Albuquerque 
Police officer, using his favorite hunting rifle, 
fired a round into the unarmed man’s chest.

In May of this year Mark Gomez found his brother 
Alan high on drugs and “acting crazy.” Not 
knowing how to intervene and scared that his 
brother would hurt himself, he called 911. Alan 
Gomez became another statistic when an APD 
officer shot him in the back. Gomez was armed at the time with a plastic spoon.

On February 9, 2011, APD officer Trey Economidy 
pulled over Jacob Mitschelen on a traffic 
violation. Economidy claimed Mitschelen ran from 
the scene with a weapon in his hand. Mitschelen’s 
mother asked “They had him down with the first 
shot, why did they have to go up and pump two more shots in him?”

One answer to the question, both the specific 
question regarding any one of the 14 deaths and 
the more general question about the spike in 
Police shootings, may be that APD officers are 
violent by nature, self-selected to the force 
because of the opportunity to kill with impunity. 
The numbers seems to suggest as much. Police 
killings in Albuquerque are three-times what is 
found in comparably sized cities and is similar 
to New York, which has 14-times the population 
and a police force 34-times larger than APD.

And there’s ample evidence of a frightening blood 
lust among some APD officers. Trey Economidy, the 
police shooter in the Mitschelen death, posted 
his job description on Facebook as “human waste 
disposal.” He was suspended for four days. 
Detective Jim Dwyer listed his occupation as 
“oxygen thief removal technician” on his MySpace 
page, a page that included alarming posts like 
“Some people are only alive because killing them 
is illegal.” Police Chief Ray Schultz called some 
of his posts “concerning” and “very clearly 
inappropriate,” but refused to discipline Dwyer.

There exists, however, another possibility. The 
refusal by APD leadership to discipline officers 
(none of the officers involved in any of the 
shootings has been removed from the force), and 
the refusal of Mayor Richard Berry to seek an 
independent, outside investigation by the 
Department of Justice (The Albuquerque City 
Council voted in August to request the 
investigation but Berry remains intransigent in 
his support for the troops), suggests that what’s 
developing in Albuquerque is a frightening return 
to the extrajudicial police shootings that turned 
1970s Albuquerque into a killing field. Endemic 
violence in New Mexico against Native Americans 
and racialized policing patterns focused on 
young, Chicano men began to shift in the early 
1970s in reaction to the rise of Red Power and 
Chicano Movement groups into efforts to target 
and kill Chicano and Indigenous activists by the dozens.

In 1969 a Vista volunteer named Bobby Garcia 
disappeared and was later found in an arroyo with 
a bullet in the back of his head. The killing 
marked the moment when activists throughout the 
state began to see a pattern in the violence. A 
series of police shootings and the deaths of 
almost a dozen Chicano activists from Taos to 
Albuquerque, some unarmed and shot in the back, 
produced rumors of death squads operating within 
the Albuquerque Police Department and the New Mexico State Police.

And the evidence began piling up along with the 
bodies. On February 28, 1972 Rito Canales and 
Antonio Cordova were killed in a barrage of 
gunfire while the two were reportedly trying to 
steal dynamite from a roadside construction 
bunker. Both men were members of a group known as 
the Black Berets, a multi-ethnic, community-based 
social movement organization modeled on the Black 
Panthers and inspired by Che Guevara. Canales and 
Cordova were outspoken and prominent community 
activists, particularly on issues of police 
brutality, New Mexico prison conditions and the 
institutional racism facing Chicano communities 
in New Mexico. Their organization operated a free 
community health clinic (named in honor of Bobby 
Garcia), established cultural schools for Chicano 
preschoolers, organized film nights and offered 
tutoring sessions for local teenagers, among 
other things. Members traveled to Cuba on 
Venceremos Brigades, brought Vietnamese students 
to Albuquerque to talk about the war in Vietnam, 
and provided childcare for local union members during strikes.

Their killing came the day before both were 
scheduled to hold a news conference on an 
investigation into prison violence and police 
brutality. Police had been harassing the Black 
Berets for years before the Canales and Cordova 
shootings. As one former Black Beret leaders 
recalls it “[The police] would pull out their 
guns while their vehicle was driving and say 
‘Bang, Bang’.” The Berets, it seems, uncovered 
evidence of a secret interagency group called the 
Metro Squad, made up of officers from APD and the 
New Mexico State Police along with Bernalillo 
County Sheriff’s Deputies and involvement from 
federal agents. The Metro Squad worked with the 
John Birch Society, the Minutemen, and other 
reactionary groups who opposed civil rights.

The killings of Chicano activists should also be 
understood as part of a much larger pattern of 
violence that included, and made possible, police violence.

John Harvey and Herrman Benally were murdered on 
April 21, 1974. After being stripped of their 
clothes, they were beaten with rocks, castrated 
with burning sticks and set on fire. The men were 
found in a ditch along a dusty stretch of highway 
outside the Navajo nation in Northwest New 
Mexico. Less than a week later, a third Navajo 
man was found in a ditch. Like Harvey and 
Benally, David Ignacio was beaten savagely. His 
attackers left him to die from suffocation after 
caving in his chest with rocks.

The April deaths came during a bloody spring as 
ten violent deaths rocked the Navajo nation and 
turned the initial horror into an almost weekly 
event. In the days following the discovery of 
Ignacio, 60 people called the funeral home 
wondering if he were a missing relative. When 
three white Farmington, New Mexico high school 
students confessed to the murders, stories of 
constant racial violence in the area came to 
light. The murders, it turns out, were a 
consequence of a blood sport among Farmington 
high school students who for years had made 
robbing, beating, and mutilating inebriated men 
outside the scores of liquor stores that ringed 
the Navajo nation into a weekly Saturday night 
event. Some white students at Farmington, it 
seems, displayed the cut-off fingers of their 
Navajo victims in their lockers. Until the 
tortures and murders were revealed the cause of 
death for the dozens of Navajo men found dead in 
the ditches along lonely highways was said to be 
“exposure” from passing out following drinking 
bouts. Meanwhile the police, some remarked at the 
time, continued to recruit at the local high school for new cadets.

In Albuquerque the Berets went public with their 
claims of police brutality at a rally that turned 
into a pitched street battle with police and 
Anglo provocateurs. In Farmington, young Navajo 
activists of the Coalition for Navajo Liberation 
marched in the streets against violence until the 
Sheriff’s posse showed up. The ensuing melee sent 
dozens of marchers to the hospital and the rest to jail.

The violence and police killings of the 1970s 
have returned. But there are differences between 
the violence of the 1970s and the eruption of 
this new pattern of police violence. The killings 
in the 1970s should be placed in the context of 
liberation movement activism around civil rights 
issues by groups like the Black Berets and the 
Coalition for Navajo Liberation. The killings 
today find another context, namely three decades 
of a bulldozing neoliberal restructuring that has 
ground its way through poor communities amid the 
parallel expansion of a violent and dehumanizing drug economy.

There are, however, similarities. Police violence 
against civil rights activists in the 1970s was a 
function of the way in which race and class 
became a proxy for subversion by the agents of 
social control such as the police. In the strange 
logic of the Albuquerque Police Department, poor, 
urban Chicanos became targets of police violence 
because of the social chaos that racism and 
poverty had created. Likewise today, APD is at 
war with the poor because it has come to equate 
any expression of poverty or drug addiction not 
as an effect of structural inequality, but rather 
as another opportunity to dispose of what its 
officers call “human waste.” Like elsewhere being 
poor, suffering from a mentally illness or 
battling a drug addiction is a crime. Dwyer was 
wrong, detectives like Enconomidy and Dwyer have 
thrived at APD because for the Albuquerque Police 
Department, killing is not an illegal act.

David Correia is an Assistant Professor of 
American Studies at the University of New Mexico 
in Albuquerque. He was inspired to write about 
Police violence in Albuquerque by the work of an 
anonymous graffiti artist whose art can be found 
along the railroad tracks in Albuquerque. He can 
be reached at dcorreia(at)unm.edu

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