ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Prosecutors in New Mexico’s busiest judicial district and the state Indian Affairs Department are teaming up to create a special unit to focus on investigating cases of missing or slain Native Americans.

State Indian Affairs Secretary Lynn Trujillo and Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez announced a memorandum of understanding Thursday to form the investigative team. Under the agreement, the unit within the district attorney’s office will help a statewide task force with analysis, case investigations and interventions.

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Officials said New Mexico has the fifth-largest Native American population in the U.S. but the highest number of Indigenous people who have been killed or are missing in the country.

Native American women in New Mexico experience the highest rate of homicide among all racial and ethnic groups, officials have said, and Torrez characterized the situation as an epidemic.

“It is clear that steps need to be taken to help bring resources to the victims, families and communities affected by this crisis,” he said in a statement. “Working with Native communities and law enforcement to collect actionable data is crucial to moving these cases forward and preventing future violence.”

The district attorney’s office has dedicated one analyst to reviewing crime data to understand historical patterns related to human trafficking and the intersection of movement of people between the state’s tribal communities and the Albuquerque metropolitan area.

The office also is hiring another investigator to assist with victim advocacy and has submitted a special request to the state Legislature to hire two full-time investigators.

Trujillo said a previous report by the Urban Indian Health Institute showed New Mexico had some of the highest numbers of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls and that Albuquerque and Gallup were among top 10 cities nationwide. As a result, New Mexico created a task force in 2019 to begin addressing the crisis.

report issued by the task force said that between 2014 and 2019, there were 660 Native Americans reported missing in Albuquerque, of which 287 were women.

“These alarming statistics highlight the critical need for partnerships, and that’s why the MOU between the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department and the Bernalillo County DA’s Office is so crucial,” Trujillo said.

Trujillo said the crisis has its roots in colonialism and racism and is perpetuated by indifference and silence.

“The responsibility falls on each of us to end this historic violence against our indigenous communities, which has devastated us for far too long,” said Trujillo, who is a member of Sandia Pueblo and is part Acoma and Taos Pueblos.

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty was among those at the signing ceremony. She leads the Missing and Murdered Diné Relatives task force that is developing a framework for a proposed data institute and a missing persons toolkit for communities.

“It is clear that our Indigenous women are plagued by high rates of violence and in response, there continues to be a lack of government support to meet the growing needs of our families,” she said.

Crotty added: “In order to restore harmony and begin the healing process, criminal cases must fully be prosecuted and our Indigenous relatives must be found. The lives of our missing Navajo relatives are sacred and their stories must be told.”