Eleven Women Murdered in the New Mexico Desert and No One Spoke Out

Two years ago today, in a story that shook me to my core, a woman walking her dog found a femur in the desert.  She alerted the police, who began a three-month dig, covering a vast area of the mesa near my home.  The police found the bodies of 11 women, one of whom was four months pregnant.  Many of the women were close to my age and grew up here like me.  Were brown like me.  Had struggled here, like me.

But when these women were found dead, President Obama did not come to town. There was no jam-packed memorial to mourn their lives cut short.  What we had instead were devastated families whose greatest fear had been realized when their daughter’s remains were discovered on the mesa.

As the story unfolded, terrible sounds echoed in my ears.  Not the sounds of the shovels in the desert, but the sound of these lives being erased.  Not only through death, but through the official description of the events. The women were not brave heroes who faced histories of poverty, abuse and trauma with the best tools they could find.  They were “addicts.”  And because they used drugs, many earned money the best way they could—by selling sex.  And so they were “prostitutes.”  The authorities thought the story could begin and end there: bodies found, case closed.  11 more prostitutes dead. Done.

The $100,000 reward for information leading to the killers was rarely advertised, and by most accounts from the families of the missing and dead, the police have been less than enthusiastic about pursuing the case.  When challenged on their lack of results they said, The only suspects we have are dead.”

I often found myself wondering if that would that fly if these were 11 white college students found buried under a football field.

After the initial news accounts, many of us pounced on the local authorities for the language they were using to describe the women, for the shrug of the shoulders they seemed to use when talking about their “high-risk lifestyles.”

We held monthly vigils to memorialize the women and their lives.  Over 400 people came out in force for our April vigil: Latinos, Native Americans, African Americans, immigrants, whites, the young and the old. All held hands, raised our heads, cried and sang.  

And I knew we were winning hearts and minds when I received a phone call from the city administration asking me to remove the pink crosses we had left standing in the park because city workers refused take down our memorial, or to disgrace the crosses by putting them in the city dump. 

We fanned the flames of something that was already here, in Albuquerque, in our barrios.  Compassion, love and heartbreak.  Even for women who use drugs, even for women who sell sex to buy them.

And we saw a change.  After we called attention to the language the officials were using in the case, we saw a powerful shift in their words.  Instead of prostitutes and addicts, they became women, mothers and daughters.  The investigation remains open, if slow.  The families have been connected, and can draw on each other for support.

There are many fronts on which we continue to fight this battle. There are three bills moving through the New Mexico legislature right now that would help.  Together, they would work increase access for substance abuse and mental health treatment for young women and pregnant women.  YWU and many other organizations, law-makers, health-care providers and families are working together to create an effective web of services.

These women are national heroes to us. If Obama had come to our stadium to help us mourn, remember, and make sense of these lives and deaths, he might have said this:

I want America to be as good as these women needed it to be.  Let’s live up to their dreams, that this could be a country where you can be born without much, but live a life that is safe, and full of promise.  Where you can get a good education, a job, a home.  Where if you stray from the path, there are nets to catch you.  Where you are never found dead, dismembered, and alone on a mesa. 

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  • beenthere72

    Amazing and beautiful of you to give these women a voice.    We have a similar situation in my neck of the woods (literally, they picked up the guy just up the road from me).     His victims fit the same profile as yours.   It’s incredibly sad to think that there are predators out there that view these women as so disposable.   


    Here are extensive details on our local killer.   It’s tragic that he hasn’t served more time for his previous offenses and apparently some serious charges were thrown out simply because the women (and a girl in one case) did not show up to testify.    Something needs to be done to help women feel safer about speaking out against these abusers.

  • jrm83

    This story reminded me of the case in Cleveland.  Anthony Sowell also tended to target women with histories of drug abuse.  (A particularly creepy similarity was that they also found 11 murder victims.)


    At least one of the surviving victims had her credibility called into question because drug problems, saying “police laughed at her when she reported the attack and dismissed her claim as the musings of a crackhead.”



    The police showed similar reluctance to investigate after Tonia Carmichael disappeared, reportedly telling her family she “would show up after she finished smoking crack.”



    It’s disgusting that some people’s lives are treated as being worth less than others because they are poor, minorities, and/or they lead “high-risk lifestyles.”  It’s also dangerous to assume that their killers pose any less threat to society than those who prey on more affluent victims.

  • nightshade

    This is also a reminder that Gary Ridgway is serving a life sentence (instead of staring at whatever Washington’s version of ol’ Sparky) for murdering 48 women, mostly prostitutes, runaways and drug addicts. If his victims had been Ted Bundy’s, he’d be on death row, too.

  • prowomen

    It’s true the reaction would have been totally different if the bodies had been of 11 young, white college men who were known drug users.  There’s one justice for the rich and one for the poor.