Indian Affairs Committee wants $3 million for Attorney General’s work on missing and murdered Indigenous Peoples cases

The attorney general’s office has made progress this year addressing the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples (MMIP) crisis, but it needs targeted funding from lawmakers to sustain it, said Mark Probasco, deputy director of the agency’s Special Prosecutor’s Committee on India affairs on Thursday.

The Legislative Committee did not dissent, passing a motion recommending that $3 million be included in the state budget for the office to continue its work on a statewide issue that has received growing attention in New Mexico in recent years.

A state task force released a response plan in May with a series of recommendations, though it’s unclear what legislative action might come next.

At least 192 Indigenous peoples are missing across New Mexico and the Navajo Nation, according to a list the FBI last updated in October. State officials and lawmakers say that’s likely an undercount.

Senate Bill 12, signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in February, created a specialist position in the AG’s office and allocated $1 million to a grant program aimed at building a network to support tribal nations’ efforts to help missing Indigenous peoples identify and find .

An additional million dollars for at least one full-time specialist did not make it into the final bill. As a result, the AG’s office has attracted resources from other areas, Probasco told the committee.

“It’s one thing for the state to say it’s committed to this important work,” Probasco said. “We’re doing the best we can with the resources we have, but the reality is it has to be that way in order to maximize the legislation that’s passed and ensure we’re giving these families the best chance of moving forward in a better funded way.”

Since February, the bureau has assisted with law enforcement, helping compile the FBI list, developing partnerships with other law enforcement agencies and working with the New Mexico Press Association to provide training on humane reporting of MMIP cases, Probasco said.

Probasco pointed to the murder of Cecelia B. Finona (Diné). After being reported missing in 2019, the 59-year-old Farmington resident was found dead in 2021.

Jerry Jay was prosecuted with help from the AG office and pleaded guilty to first-degree kidnapping and second-degree murder in September. He killed Finona in Farmington and traveled through the Navajo Nation and several states before disposing of her body in Nevada, Probasco said, adding that the case highlights jurisdictional barriers that often complicate MMIP cases.

“As we look at why we needed this legislation, what I can most directly point to is the fact that her family was able to get her body back, was able to bury her, knew what happened to her, and to do so in was able to see her killer brought to justice,” he said.

MP Martin Zamora, R-Clovis, asked why the AG’s office needed a budget specifically for indigenous victims.

“Suppose you had a murdered Hispanic budget and then an indigenous peoples budget and then a black budget and then a white budget,” Zamora said. “We don’t know how many incidents we will have in each race.”

Probasco replied that “Native American” was a political classification rather than a race.

“One thing that has been very crucial in our work in this area is the recognition of the inherent sovereignty nature of tribes being sovereign entities,” he said. “That’s no different than, for example, in terms of the involvement of the attorney general’s office, the inherently complex issues that arise when refugees rush to Mexico.”

Probasco told the committee that $1.5 million is the minimum funding the AG’s office needs to continue the work mandated by SB 12.

“There must be enough prosecutors, investigators and culturally sensitive specialists, as required by this law, for this work to continue and not stop there,” Probasco said.

Sen. Shannon Pinto, D-Tohatchi, the committee’s co-chair, proposed $3 million, with the stipulation that any unspent money be returned to the general fund. After a brief discussion, the committee unanimously approved the proposal.