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Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
A trip down the dusty sunbaked streets of what the city of Albuquerque has optimistically named the “International District” reveals an area awash in drug deals, fast food trash and discarded needles.
It’s common knowledge to the residents of this area that many still call the “War Zone” that it is in the midst of a crime epidemic. So data recently released by a city task force indicating that the area has had the highest concentration of violent crime in recent years was likely no surprise to them.
While only 6.7 percent of Albuquerque’s population lives in the area bounded roughly by Carlisle and Eubank and Lomas and Gibson, its residents experienced at least 27 percent of the city’s murders between 2014 and 2016. And more than 10 percent of the 12,444 addresses in the area have experienced one or more incidents involving violent crime. Theft is rampant, too: One in four addresses have reported a property crime in the past three years.
In these neighborhoods, daily life regularly intersects with crime on the streets.
Children ride their bikes up and down the roads, hopping curbs and shouting to one another on a summer afternoon. A young girl, maybe 10, wearing a dress, pedals over the dips and cracks of the sidewalk and into a mobile home park. On Utah, south of Zuni, four older men gather their folding chairs into a small circle and chat in Spanish as the sun sets.
Several blocks away on Central, across from Pussycat Video and a recently shuttered Circle K convenience store, officers gather, their police cruiser lights flashing. They tie crime tape from the sidewalk to the median, examine bullet casings and a small pool of blood and walk down the block to talk to the owners of a taco truck parked nearby who maybe saw or heard something.
Later, the officers say, they learn that a man showed up at a nearby hospital with a gunshot wound, but he wouldn’t cooperate with investigators.
The purpose of the recent crime data is to help the city decide where and how to concentrate its limited resources. In the meantime, here is a look at the personal impact of crime on the day-to-day lives of those who live in the city’s most violent neighborhoods. The Journal talked to more than a dozen residents about their experiences.
When Doti Rookstool and her husband, Clayton, bought a property with two small houses next to an alley on California SE in 1995, they knew the area wasn’t the best.
But, she said, it has gotten worse in recent years.
Inside their white brick wall are flowering trees, roses and pots overflowing with tomatoes. Outside, Rookstool said, they face a constant stream of trash and drugs, as groups of homeless people have set up camp in the alley that borders their property.
She said they steal anything that isn’t nailed down.
They took an old chair she had set aside for her grandchildren and cleaned out the tool shed one day when her husband left it unlocked while he ran to Home Depot in the middle of a project.
Once, Rookstool said, they even stole the ladder her husband had used to climb on top of the shed, leaving him stranded on the roof.
“Some of those things, like when the house was robbed, that can happen anywhere,” she said. “But when they threaten us, and you can tell they’re high on drugs, those are the ones that scare you, because you don’t know what crazy thing they’re going to do.”
As Rookstool talked to the Journal on a recent rainy afternoon, police were called to the carport in the alley outside her fence, causing the nearly 20 people who had been waiting out the monsoon there to scatter.
A waiter who works at a nearby Mexican seafood restaurant told a reporter that a couple of men had threatened him with a knife and stolen his phone after he took a photo of them.
Although he was shaken up by the robbery, the waiter sweeps up needles and trash that the group left behind because, he says, someone still needs to do it.
Tina Weber lives with her four pit bulls in a small house converted from an old auto shop tucked between a vacant lot and a church south of Central.
She said she used to live half a mile away, on Grove and Trumbull, but moved about three months ago.
Weber remembers the rampant gunfire in her old neighborhood. She describes watching a pimp shoot at the ground next to a prostitute as the pair walked down the street.
“He pulled out the gun right in front of us, we were sitting outside in front of the front door smoking a cigarette, and he shot off a round,” Weber said. “Then he came back and he had the gun right here, and he was like ‘do you have a cigarette’ and I was like ‘sure, here you go.’ ”
She said she raised her two kids in “the hood,” although they’ve long since moved out of the city.
“I have one up in college in Oregon, and the other is married in Santa Fe, so they’re away from Albuquerque,” she said. “They grew up here, they knew it was a bad area, but they were used to it.”
Now she said she worries about the other children she sees biking or playing in the streets and tells them they can come to her place if they ever need help.
“There are homeless and crazies,” Weber said. “You see prostitutes getting dropped off and picked up, and the homeless. It’s awful.”
Ric Romero collects heart-shaped rocks and petrified wood in a two-bedroom apartment – one of six in a family-friendly complex off Anderson SE.
He retired, survived cancer and moved into the complex four years ago. After living in Southeast Albuquerque in the 1980s, he said he figured he knew the area and that it would be in better shape now.
But, last year, trouble moved in across the street, and now he’s worried he’ll get caught in the crossfire of a gunfight.
“We were out one night when there was a gang war,” Romero said. “Everyone went running to the apartments. We were out here talking, and a bullet just went right overhead; it whistled at us right overhead.”
After the shooting Romero said a rock was thrown at his apartment and would have hit him if not for the screen over the window.
He said his neighbors worry about being targeted for calling police, but he feels he needs to keep reporting crime until things improve.
“The neighbors say they’re afraid they’ll put a bullet through my window, and I say, ‘Well, that puts me out of my misery,’ ” Romero said with a chuckle.
As she talks to the Journal, Clara Escontrias, her sister and her mother and her young daughter and brother watch as crime scene investigators walk in and out of an apartment complex across the street.
Escontrias said she grew up in Southeast Albuquerque and she likes the area she lives in now, near the rolling, tree-lined Phil Chacon Park on Southern SE.
But, she said police are a common sight on the block. She tries to make sure her 5-year-old daughter is safe inside when night begins to fall.
“We are usually worried more in the evening. You never know what’s going to happen around here,” Escontrias said. “You hear a lot of gunshots, and we are a little scared that something might happen.”
She said that, a couple of months ago, she and her daughter had just gotten home from the store and locked the door when two people fleeing from police tried to break in.
“They decided to run into our yard and try to get into our house, but luckily our door was locked, so they weren’t able to get in,” she said. “We had police cars all over the house; we had police with guns around here. It was scary.”
In the summer months, John Brant says he sleeps in parks or on street corners if he can’t stay at a friend’s apartment. He is from Savannah, Ga., and traveled across the country to the West many years ago, before ending up in Albuquerque.
Since then, he has been in jail and has been evicted from an apartment over a fight that started as a noise complaint.
Now he’s homeless.
His elbow is bloody and bruised from when he fell as he tried to pull a mattress from a Dumpster in an alleyway east of San Mateo.
Perched on a white-brick wall and smoking a Swisher Sweets cigar, Brant remembers how a man recently robbed him, stealing his wallet – which held his personal documents.
“I just got paid, and he said, ‘I need some help,’ ” Brant said. “I pulled it out, and he slapped the wallet out of my hand and took off. To go get some methamphetamine.”
Now Brant carries around a faded blue folder with the paperwork he has managed to replace.
Stories like this, and more, fill City Councilor Pat Davis’ inbox.
Davis, who represents the area, said he gets two or three emails every day from residents who are worried about property crimes and say their cases aren’t being investigated. He said most people start their emails by thanking the officers who responded to their calls, but they are frustrated by a lack of results.
“We don’t have enough detectives to follow up on those reports,” Davis said. “I think there is a real sense that we don’t have enough resources to do the follow up to actually hold anybody accountable.”
And Davis himself isn’t a stranger to crime, although he lives in the more well-heeled Ridgecrest area, which borders the high-crime areas.
“The night my truck was broken into, my neighbor’s was stolen,” Davis said. “One of my neighbors’ homes the day before had an attempted burglary.”
Many residents the Journal talked to pointed to the promise of a new substation on San Mateo and Kathryn as a glimmer of hope that things will improve in the next couple of years. Davis, who is running for Congress, helped secure the funding to build the station and says he feels the same way.
He said the recent data in the city crime report didn’t tell him or his constituents anything they didn’t already know about their district, but he wants to see what comes next.
“We’ve been sending more officers Downtown and to the Southeast, and we’ve got to keep doing that,” Davis said. “But we also have to look at other resources, like how are we prioritizing our investigative services around the city.”