ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – New Mexico is no stranger to violent crime, but so far this year’s homicide count is outpacing the average of the last two years by about 75%. As of April 18, 2021, the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) recorded 35 homicides across the city. By this time last year, there were only 18. In 2019, there were only 22 homicides by April 18.

“Drug-related homicides are definitely up this year — quite a bit,” says Gilbert Gallegos. And a lot of the homicides have occurred in hotels and motels, he says. Some of those are drug deals gone wrong.

“Young people are getting together — usually through social media — to sell a small amount of drugs or guns,” Gallegos says, “and they meet up somewhere and the one party robs the other party and then it turns into a shooting or homicide.” Not all of Albuquerque’s homicides start this way, but recently APD has seen more of these kinds of homicides, Gallegos says.

This year began with more homicides than in 2020 and 2019. Data from APD.

Squabbles over drugs — and not necessarily large amounts of drugs — have often led to homicides in the past. Liz Thomson, a retired APD homicide sergeant says the department “saw a fair number” of people shooting each other over relatively small amounts of drugs. But there seems to be more to the violence than just illegal drugs.

“You start to look deeper and you realize: ‘Is it really the drugs?'” she says. For example, in 2017, during her time as a sergeant, Thomson saw “one of the most heinous murders:” the murder of John Soyka. “It was horrific,” Thomson recalls. The motivation for that crime boils down to stolen marijuana and money. “So one could argue that that was a drug-related crime,” Thomson says. Yet, “I can pretty honestly say that I believe Chase Smotherman would have become violent if they had stolen his garden tools.”

But, Nicholas Huffmyer, a captain at the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office, says that drugs and violence are inevitably linked.

“The lie that people are told is that drug crimes are nonviolent,” Huffmyer says. And he points to the drug trade as a source of violence across New Mexico. “It isn’t violent for you to just sit and smoke weed, but do you have any idea how that got here?” he asks. Albuquerque’s geographic location, with a north-south-running freeway and “ease of access to the border makes this a thoroughfare and hub for a variety of interstate criminal activity,” he says.

Estimates from the Federal Bureau of Investigation show that New Mexico’s violent crime and homicide rates have been above the national average for several years now. Since 2016, between six and eight homicides per 100,000 people, each year are estimated to have occurred in New Mexico, according to the FBI data. Neighboring states, such as Arizona and Texas, have seen an estimated five to six homicides per 100,000 people each year.

Interactive Slider: New Mexico’s homicide rate (estimated from incomplete data) has historically outpaced both neighboring states and the national homicide rate per capita. New Mexico’s violent crime rate (also estimated) far outpaces our neighbors. Data from FBI UCR Program.

It’s not clear why New Mexico is particularly prone to violence. “The sooner people recognize that there is not one circumstance that is causing this, the better,” Huffmyer says. Still, when it comes to identifying potential causes, “the things that have held to be true,” he says, “are things such as poverty, things like the disintegration of a traditional family structure, [and] substance abuse.”

Liz Thomson points out that there does appear to be similar connections among Albuquerque’s homicides. “There’s a lot of evidence out there that the environment — and what it says — has a lot to do with crime,” she says. Central Avenue, for example, “is just infamous for being sort of the seedier part of Albuquerque.” And sure enough, in recent years homicides have clustered near Central — especially between EXPO New Mexico and Eubank.

Interactive Slider: Over the last few years, homicides (orange markers) have been focused around downtown Albuquerque and Central Ave. But so far, 2021 homicides have been occurring further east. Homicide data from APD; map data from UNM RGIS/US Census

“It’s just a part of Albuquerque that looks like there’s no oversight there. It looks like nobody cares,” Thomson says. Yet one of the most basic crime prevention strategies is to make a place look clean, inviting, and cared for, she says. And the problem extends far beyond Central. “Albuquerque is just known for abandoned cars, abandoned property.”

For years, Albuquerque has had a problem with unsightly property, as reported by KRQE special assignment reporter Gabrielle Burkhart in 2017. And throughout the city, vacant lots and closed buildings continue to be an issue; that’s a problem that isn’t likely to go away soon. What can be done in the meantime is increase police patrols in those areas. But, there are mixed feelings on the effectiveness of simply increasing police presence in troubled areas.

“The most effective thing about policing is engagement with the community — going to neighborhood meetings, interacting with kids,” Thomson says. But things like police cameras and bringing police cars to the area, those reduce fear and help catch perpetrators. People “see a camera and they feel better,” but cameras don’t necessarily prevent crime, she says.

Nicholas Huffmyer from the sheriff’s office says that “overwhelming police presence” does work. Just “having a police car patrolling in a neighborhood on a regular basis acts as a deterrent,” he says.

Given the recent increase in homicides, APD has been increasing both presence and engagement in certain areas, recently focusing on a Montgomery neighborhood with bouts of violence. Additionally, APD has added new detectives to the homicide unit. They’re up to 16 detectives and two sergeants, a number Liz Thomson says is a reasonable amount to handle Albuquerque’s homicide caseload. But, it’s worth remembering that homicide detectives generally start their work after the crime is already done. Adding to the homicide team won’t prevent homicides, APD’s Gilbert Gallegos says.

Both the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office and APD say there continues to be challenges to preventing and solving violent crimes. Over the last few years, an influx of police-related scandals and Department of Justice scrutiny has led to the shutdown of APD programs and the shrinkage of APD’s staff, Gallegos says. Now, the APD is about 200 officers short of being fully staffed, he adds.

Huffmyer goes even further and points to the implementation of Department of Justice reforms — including use of force-policy reforms, community oversight, and additional training requirements —as a driver of violent crime in Albuquerque. “We know this from exit interviews of officers who have retired or left departments,” he says. “Without fail, they all said, ‘we’ve been hamstrung; we’ve been effectively neutered from being able to do our job.'”

Huffmyer also suggests that the “dark cloud of administrative pressure” and “the eminent threat of public persecution” can decrease law enforcement effectiveness. But Gallegos says that while public distrust of APD certainly exists, it isn’t a big hinderance to APD’s ability to investigate violent crime.

There is one thing that certainly stands in the way of reducing Albuquerque’s violent crime, says Liz Thomson: “In regards to reducing violent crime, investigating and solving violent crime, the blame game is the worst thing,” she says. And in Albuquerque, it “has always been a huge obstacle.”

In the past, she says, it was easy to point the finger at political scapegoats or at gang violence. “Yes, we have gangs. And yes, they can be violent,” she explains, yet during her time as sergeant, “not one single year was gang-related homicide ever a major [crime] category,” she says. Rather, homicides were often simply disputes that spun out of control. “Albuquerque has had more than one homicide over beer pong,” she says to illustrate her point.

So ultimately, there are no easy answers to explain why New Mexico is such a violent place. And even data on violent crimes doesn’t paint the full picture. Huffmyer explains that because crime data from different jurisdictions and different times fall under different reporting standards, the data that does exist comes from a “flawed collection method.” On top of that, the sociology of crime is complex, to put it lightly. As a result, violent crime — including Albuquerque’s homicides — are the result of what Huffmyer calls “a mishmash” of complex factors.

2021 Albuquerque Homicides

So far this year, there has been an uptick in the number of homicides at motels and hotels. This list will be updated as new information becomes available.