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Mystery shrouds civil rights-era murder of New Mexico jailer

Reies Lopez Tijerina talks to his followers at a 20th reunion of the Tierra Amarilla Courthouse raid. One of the most dramatic conflicts of the civil rights era remains unsolved 50 years later. (Richard Pipes/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE, N.M. — The murder of a Hispanic New Mexico jailer in 1968 – a year of unrest in the United States – has divided residents, scholars and civil rights advocates for decades. Fifty years and two investigations later, one of the most dramatic conflicts of the civil rights era remains unsolved.

On a frigid January evening, assailants abducted Eulogio Salazar in front of his home in the rural community of Tierra Amarilla. His body was later found in a ravine.

Police said the perpetrators viciously pistol-whipped Salazar.

Hysteria followed in northern New Mexico amid racial tensions and a push by Hispanic activists for the return of land they say the government illegally seized from their ancestors in New Mexico and southern Colorado.

“I think whoever did it probably went to his grave,” Maria Varela, a photographer who worked with civil rights activists in the area, said. “But there are people in that community who know who did it.”

The murder came as Salazar was preparing to testify against Hispanic rights activist Reies Lopez Tijerina and his followers, who six months earlier led an armed raid of the Tierra Amarilla Courthouse about 150 miles north of Albuquerque.

The raid was connected to age-old land disputes and began after activists from the group La Alianza Federal de Mercedes sought to make a citizen’s arrest of Santa Fe’s district attorney.

The group wanted local officials to honor Spanish land grants outlined in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo – the agreement that ended the U.S.-Mexican War of 1848 – and give back land to the descendants of Hispanic pioneering families.

Salazar was working at the courthouse as a jailer and was shot during the raid. Afterward, he told then-Gov. David Cargo it was Tijerina who shot him, according to Cargo’s memoirs.

New Mexico National Guard troops, searching for suspects in the 1967 Tierra Amarilla courthouse raid, talk to a Canjilon resident on a northern New Mexico road. (Ray Cary/Albuquerque Journal)

Tijerina and his followers escaped into a nearby national forest, generating excitement among supporters and fear among others. Their actions helped spark the Chicano Movement – a militant phase of the Mexican-American civil rights struggle.

Salazar was recovering from his wounds when he was killed. His body was found with his car at the foot of a hill 5 miles from his home. The car was nose-down against a snow-banked fence.

There were no witnesses. No one was ever convicted.

But Salazar’s family says they know who was behind the murder: associates of Tijerina.

“Someone did this because blood was boiling, and they were trying to cover their tracks,” said Michael Olivas, Salazar’s cousin and a University of Houston law professor.

Tijerina denied having any role in Salazar’s killing up until his own death in 2015.

Others say Salazar was a casualty of overzealous law enforcement working to dismantle the growing influence of Mexican-American civil rights groups and thwart activists’ efforts to reclaim the land they argued was stolen from them.

Tijerina and other Alianza members were under constant surveillance and infiltration by the FBI and New Mexico State Police, said David Correia, author of “Properties of Violence: Law and Land Grant Struggle in Northern New Mexico.” In fact, scholars have uncovered evidence authorities were trying to provoke Tijerina and his group into a violent confrontation.

“When Eulogio Salazar gets killed, that’s the context in which he’s murdered,” Correia said. “There was a coordinated, covert campaign to politically delegitimize Alianza.”

Salazar was not an Alianza member, but some scholars have suggested he might have changed his mind about testifying against Tijerina, angering authorities. His family disputes that theory.

The truth likely will never come out, said Toney Anaya, a former New Mexico attorney general who oversaw an investigation into the murder nearly 10 years later.

“There simply were not enough leads to try to get down to the bottom of who done it,” Anaya said.

A report by then-New Mexico Assistant Attorney General Michael Francke faulted the State Police for a sloppy investigation and all but cleared Tijerina and his associates. But it had pages redacted, furthering conspiracy theories.

John Crenshaw, a former Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper reporter who covered the Salazar murder, said despite the many theories, Salazar’s death cast a “cold feeling” over the land grant movement.

“Talk about a cold case,” Crenshaw said. “Whoever or for whatever reasons, I’d love for the whole world to know after all these years … but I don’t think that will ever happen.”

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