Remembering the Women Murdered in Albuquerque

Five years ago, on February 2, 2009, investigators unearthed a mass grave on the west edge of Albuquerque, N.M. In it were the bodies of 11 women, some of whom had been missing for more than five years. The women had been murdered, then buried on the mesa, are are now known as victims of the West Mesa murders.

I reported half a dozen stories about the murders of the 11 women—Victoria Chavez, Gina Michelle Valdez, Cinnamon Elks, Julie Nieto, Monica Candelaria, Veronica Romero, Doreen Marquez, Virginia Cloven, Evelyn Salazar, Syllannia Edwards and Jamie Barela. In 2011, I wrote about it for Ms. magazine, connecting the murders in Albuquerque with the unsolved murders of women across the nation.

I also made a video of changes at the burial site/memorial over the years:

With the fifth anniversary of the crime scene’s discovery approaching, Albuquerque’s KRQE-TV aired an investigative piece. Reporters Jeff Proctor and Kim Holland revealed there may be new leads in the case, which remains unsolved:

“Some investigators believe they know who did it, although police refuse to say publicly. KRQE News 13 has learned the names of two prominent suspects in the West Mesa Murders case and is reporting for the first time details about both men—and some of the tactics detectives have used through the years to solve the riddle—as the investigation limps to the end of its fifth year.

One of the men is dead; the other is in jail facing a slew of violent, unrelated rape charges. The Albuquerque Police Department concedes that tips in the case have somewhat dried up through the years.”

Though I can see the bare land every time I look west from the Albuquerque Sunport (the local airport), and I think often of the victims, I hadn’t returned to the crime scene in a couple of years. I hadn’t even pulled out the police reports, autopsies, reports, news clippings and interviews I’ve collected over the years. I didn’t call the families, not even investigators.

Like most people in Albuquerque, I wanted to forget about the crime scene and the despair its discovery revealed about the city. Reporting on the story, I learned not only about murder and the ways in which people die, I learned about how some women and children must live—weighed down by drug addiction, abuse, mental illness, prostitution, discrimination and exploitation.

But days before the fifth anniversary of the discovery of the bodies, I returned to the burial site. It seemed only right to pay my respects to the  ten women and the teenaged Barela.

The neighborhood, overlooking the Rio Grande Valley from the west, is new. But it’s already seen better days. Some of the houses stand vacant, with pigeons roosting in their eaves. The maze of cul de sacs host “Mobile One Video Trailers” mounted with cameras. The former burial site remains undeveloped. But there’s no sign of the memorial friends and family erected out of grief in 2009.

Returning, I’m not sure what I expected. Signs, perhaps, that the women hadn’t really been forgotten by those beyond their families and closest friends. Here’s what I found:

Of course I can’t say with certainty that the images are related to the former burial site. Or perhaps to another site nearby—the mesa is all too often considered a dumping ground for trash and bodies alike—where victims haven’t been found because it’s too vast an undertaking to comb the entire desert. The 11 women here were found only because construction equipment disturbed the bones. A woman walking her dog one morning found Victoria Chavez’s femur. She took a picture with her phone, showed it to a nurse, and then called the police. Five years have passed since that morning.

“I’m confident we’re going to solve this,” Albuquerque Police Department Cmdr. Anthony Montano said in his recent interview with KRQE.

As the daughter of a police officer, I know that confidence is a necessary trait among law enforcement officers. Here’s hoping, however, that those are more than empty words. Albuquerque’s murdered and missing women deserve better.

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Laura Paskus is a New Mexico-based reporter and radio producer.