By the end of last year, Albuquerque had 61 murders – the highest number in 20 years.
Ten months into 2017, that number has already been surpassed.
Sgt. Elizabeth Thomson of the Albuquerque Police Department homicide unit said 63 murders were committed through Nov. 2. The number doesn’t include killings that police considered justifiable, of which there were four.
And, Thomson said in an interview Thursday, it seems likely that there will be more than there were in 1996, when there were 70 murders, the highest number in recent history. If the current pace of homicides continues through the end of the year, there will be 75.
There were 100,000 fewer people living in Albuquerque in 1996, however, and the murder rate was 16.64 per 100,000 people. So far in 2017, the rate is 11.3 per 100,000.
The number of murders has been increasing each year since 2014, and reports of violent crimes and property crimes in the city have also been rising.
Over the past year, 10 people have been slain during other felonies – including a mother and a daughter who were killed in January when, police say, auto-theft suspects slammed into their car. There were two incidents in which police say someone ran over a suspected burglar in retaliation and was charged with murder.
Four people have been killed in domestic violence. Three incidents involved people with mental health problems – including a case in which, police say, a man killed his mother and put her in a cardboard box.
Thomson said that, as in other crimes police investigate, substance abuse plays a large role in fatal violence. Last weekend, police say, a 42-year-old man shot and killed another man in an office building, seemingly at random.
“I believe these people wouldn’t have committed these crimes at all except for their use of meth,” she said. “Meth has just been a terrible, terrible scar on our community.”
But, she said, the biggest change she has noticed over the past couple of years is that people are increasingly quick to turn to violence as a way to settle disputes. This year, gunfire has erupted during fights over drugs, over poorly worded apologies, over stolen vehicles, and over breakups.
“It seems to me that people are using violence to resolve disputes,” Thomson said. “I have seen an increase in the use of guns to resolve disputes. For a while, it trended that about a third of our murders were committed with firearms; now it’s half.”
Miranda Viscoli, the co-president of New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence, said there aren’t any data on how many people own guns in the city, but the number of shootings would indicate it is high.
“Because we don’t register guns, we don’t know how many there are,” Viscoli said. “Anyone can go online and buy any gun they want.”
Detectives have solved only 37 of the 63 homicides this year, putting their clearance rate for the year at 59 percent, Thomson said. The majority of the unsolved cases have occurred since mid-June.
“For us, that’s bad,” she said. “We’re always in the 80s, if not the high 80s. We have solved six from prior years … but for us, we know that in 2017 we’re really struggling.”
She said one of the reasons for the low clearance rate is she has only five detectives on the homicide unit, although two more are going through training and another will join the unit temporarily next week. She said that means they are all working around the clock.
In February, a University of New Mexico graduate student, Juan Carlos Romero, 26, was shot and killed across from campus. In May, an 86-year-old woman was found dead in her home. And in July, a 14-year-old boy was shot and killed and his two friends were injured as they entered a Dion’s pizza restaurant.
All of these remain unsolved.
But, Thomson said, police believe a number of the unsolved killings could have been related.
“If we solve one and that’s related to three others, we have just taken our clearance rate way up,” she said. “I believe that’s a factor, that we have not been able to solve those related to each other.”
In May, police arrested Yoan Pena Santiesteban, 33, who they said shot and killed three people during a 12-day crime spree.
Thomson said she believes there are other offenders out there who may be responsible for multiple crimes.
Spike in violence
This is the third consecutive year the number of murders has increased since a low point in 2014. In 2014, there were 30 murders – fewer than half of 2016’s and 2017’s totals. In 2015, there were 43.
A spokeswoman for the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office said that agency’s detectives have investigated five homicides this year.
Other cities in the Southwest have reported much lower numbers than Albuquerque.
El Paso has 120,000 more residents than Albuquerque and reported 10 homicides so far this year. And Tucson, a city with 30,000 fewer residents, reported 22 so far. As of September, Denver reported 48 homicides.
Although 2017 numbers aren’t available, the FBI’s annual report on crime in the United States found the national number of homicides rose for the second consecutive year in 2016. However, experts say the increase was driven by cities such as Baltimore, Chicago and Las Vegas, which had high numbers of homicides.
Thomson said she believes Albuquerque’s citywide spike in violence over the past couple of years mirrors the early 1990s, a time that was notorious for high crime.
“It may be a different drug, it may be involving a different type of gang activity,” Thomson said. “But I think the picture is very similar. There is a lot of social disorder going on, frankly, a lot less community policing going on, and that’s what was happening then.”
Journal staff writer Matthew Reisen contributed to this report.