Last rites and forgotten landscapes

The murders of 12 young women, and what they tell us.


On the outskirts of Albuquerque, the desert has surrendered the bones of 12 young women.

These aren't ancient burials, the kind so frequently disturbed across the Southwest whenever roads are widened or ground is broken for brand-new shopping centers.

Rather, at the beginning of February, construction workers expanding a housing development uncovered the largest crime scene in the city's history. The women, some of whom had been missing for more than five years, had been murdered. Even before investigators identified the bodies, they announced that all of them had been involved in prostitution or the drug trade.

Just as archaeologists study artifacts to determine the ways in which past populations migrated, lived and died, we can find meaning in these modern remains, as well as in the patch of land that cradled them. 

Albuquerque's West Mesa is a dusty escarpment littered with trash dumps and tire tracks, spent slugs and brambly weeds. It has been overgrazed and more recently graded and shorn to make way for Albuquerque's rabid sprawl. Now, speculators are drilling for brackish water, oil and gas. Yet I'm always struck by the depth of quiet that remains where I've meandered atop the mesa. Despite my desire for wild beauty and deep backcountry solitude, I also crave these liminal spaces where messy humans and big nature rub up against one another, however awkwardly.

So when the news broke, I felt that it was not just coincidence that the dead were discovered on the West Mesa. It was a reminder that we as a society are often indifferent to the brutality suffered by women and by landscapes, particularly the ones that don't fit our moral or aesthetic ideals -- the people, and the places, out on the margins.

Beneath the sensational news headlines, comment boards overflowed with the opinion that the murdered women had called their end upon themselves. When the Carlsbad Current-Argus reported that bones had been found elsewhere, along an exposed bank of the Pecos River, more than 45 comments sprang up below the story -- many about the unrelated murders in Albuquerque. Someone from Carlsbad, posting as "anyways," justified the police department's lack of attention to the case by arguing that the women had chosen "high risk lifestyles." The commenter concluded with, "Well, if these women did not want to end up dead, then they should have done something different with their life."

It's tempting to write off such comments as nothing more than bitter projectiles fired from the ignorant fringes of society. But statistics show that the sentiment is not uncommon. And sometimes it is carried to violent extremes.

A university study of almost 2,000 prostitute deaths in Colorado Springs over three decades showed that the average age at death was 34; 19 percent were murdered, 18 percent died from drug use, 12 percent were killed in accidents and 9 percent died of alcohol-related causes.

It's not just prostitutes who figure into this violent equation. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, 232,960 women in the United States were raped or sexually assaulted in 2006. Pause for just a moment and think about how many women you know who have been the victims of sexual violence, yet never reported the crime or even discussed it openly. Perhaps you are one of them. Then multiply the number, city by city, state by state, country by country. Think about it.

Female victims are often suspect: We must have "asked for it" somehow -- we dressed a certain way, traveled alone, drank too much, made poor choices, hung out with the wrong crowd or suffered from a lack of "good sense."

When the police announced that the murdered women had been prostitutes and drug addicts, it made their lives as easy to dismiss as the mesa we've torn apart for tract housing. But these bodies had names. By mid-March, four of the 12 women had been identified: Julie Nieto, Cinnamon Elks, Victoria Chavez and Michelle Valdez, who was four months pregnant.

A local lawmaker has suggested the city build a memorial to the women: "I just think it would be terrible for homes to be built there or that property to be sold," said City Councilman Ken Sanchez. "I would like to see some closure for the families. That is sacred ground now."

It has always been sacred ground of a sort. The West Mesa has value beyond real estate. It is home to burrowing owls and coyotes, quail and foxes. Even those who never follow winding game trails through sage and four-wing saltbush can look west of the city and know there are still open spaces to be found.

But at the intersection of winding cul-de-sacs and forgotten bones, there are realities that Americans prefer to ignore. No matter who died up there -- and no matter what creatures live there now -- people looking to make a quick buck are eager to tear up less-than-perfect places like the West Mesa -- the places on the margins. And women, especially those who continue to "take risks," will also roam the margins, and, justifiably, be afraid of men.

Anonymous says:
Apr 10, 2009 09:42 AM
What a great story - thank you.
Anonymous says:
Apr 10, 2009 10:54 AM
Thank you, Laura, for making the connection between violence against people and violence against the land and the animals that live there. We're all in this together and the rising levels of desecrated landscapes and violence desensitize us to their pervasiveness. May we ever, prompted by work like yours, remain horrified and outraged by it.
Anonymous says:
Apr 10, 2009 01:42 PM
Thank you for making the connection. It's heartbreaking how we treat the land, other humans and animals.
Anonymous says:
Apr 10, 2009 01:59 PM
Such comments are sooo thoroughly rooted in sexism it isn't funny. Would someone say the same thing about, oh say an member of the military who knows they will be shipped off to Iraq, or Vietnam? Or a cop (especially in Mexico!)? Oh and what about people who work on the fishing boats in Alaska or on oil-drilling platforms out in the ocean?

Thanks Laura for a great article!!
Anonymous says:
Apr 12, 2009 04:22 PM
Fitting too that a woman walking her dog actually found the crime scene and reported it but first called her sister a nurse and sent her a picture of a human rib to be sure first. I have wondered why the construction company and developers abandoned the lots after moving so much dirt and after filling the lots with 15 feet of fill dirt I have to wonder if they had found something and just cut their losses but said nothing. While I don't believe the area was remote at all, I do wonder why whoever did this was able to conceal it for so long and why law enforcement was so tied up it really didn't report all those poor women. What if it had been my daughter? What if she had gone missing from the mall? What if she had been ignored?
Anonymous says:
Jul 02, 2009 08:12 PM
I loved this article! The comparison between how women and our land suffers at the hands of men is profound. I am good friends with one of Michelle Valdez' aunts, as well as the mother of one the other girls that are still missing from Albuquerque. So tragic that they have been portrayed and convicted, as it were, of a lifestyle, instead of as victims of crime. Thank for a wonderful essay.
Anonymous says:
Apr 12, 2009 09:21 PM
Thank you for this astute, well-written commentary linking brutality against women and rape of the land.
Anonymous says:
Apr 13, 2009 07:57 AM
Where are the comments from men? Surely, even if you have no concept of what it is like to live in fear of this kind of brutal violence against your sex- you all have mothers, some have daughters, wives or girlfriends. What say you?
Anonymous says:
Apr 13, 2009 09:31 AM
Thank you for writing this. It so clearly demonstrates the lack of concern for anything that has become so pervasive in our society. People don't concern themselves with those that they deem "less" than they are, and don't concern themselves with the land and the environmental impact urban/suburban sprawl has. We are all connected, to each other, and to the land, and we need to wake up and realize that before it's too late.
Anonymous says:
Apr 13, 2009 12:02 PM
She writes: "It was a reminder that we as a society are often indifferent to the brutality suffered by women and by landscapes..."

I'm sorry, but that creeps me out a little, this comparison of murdered human beings to a dusty, forlorn mesa.

This is the same kind of attitude that equates the value of a marginal wildlife species to that of a human activity such as the mountain installation of a new telescope to advance man's knowledge of the heavens.

Those women had little dignity in life; such comparisons don't add any.
Anonymous says:
Apr 13, 2009 04:33 PM
Wow. Maybe it was foolish of me to be interested in the male perspective.
Anonymous says:
Apr 13, 2009 06:19 PM
Correction, Alyssa: that's A male perspective, not THe male perspective.

What a small and reductive world you must live in.
Anonymous says:
Apr 13, 2009 10:11 PM
Hi Quacque (whoever you are) -- I think your insulting of Alyssa, in comments on a piece about murdered women, is not appropriate. How about apologizing to her? You can make your point without insults.

Anonymous says:
Apr 14, 2009 06:46 AM
Apologize for what?

I simply pointed out that generalizing 'the male response' (note article) from a single buffoon is reductive. This means pointless and polarizing. 'A' is the proper article, not 'the.'

to claim that "men" don"t understand because "a man" made a contentious remark is, of course, sexist, not to mention inane.

Why does this seem so complicated?
Anonymous says:
Apr 17, 2009 11:31 AM
It is too bad that the men who respond to this article, don't get it. They need to read "Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her" by Susan Griffin and many other texts that have made that connection between the abuse of women and the abuse of the land. But what else can we expect in a country where 1 out of every four girls is sexually assaulted before the age of 16 and one our of every four women is tortured in her own home, according to CBS News. The denial is deep and the insensitivity is prevalent from the male citizens. Apparently the writers who say that the women lived life with no dignity, neer heard of the woman caught in adultery and what Jesus did nor do they have any sense of the sacredness of life or that we are all equal in God's eyes. But then with the secularization of society, and the decline of membership in churches, that is what we will see more and more...ignorance and lack of compassion and the continuing of "blame the victim" mentality that subjugates women, minorities, the disabled, etc.
Anonymous says:
Apr 15, 2009 08:50 AM
Thanks a lot for this thoughtful, well-written and powerful piece. This and other such writings are what help foster greater social and environmental conciousness in us. Indeed in the West, we're still experiencing some pretty ugly growing pains. I agree with most of the commenters that the connection you make is apt--a sharp reminder of what we overlook in society and the natural world, whether prostitutes or the West Mesa. I grew up in Albuquerque and share your sense of place. I know that tire-strewn, over-grazed mesa as a haven, and I'll echo, no matter how awkward. Those forgetten prostitutes were dumped in what's largely (dis)regarded as a dump... both forgotten, but still there. This is so telling about how we approach both land and people we don't know how to or aren't interested in valuing. I just would add one thing to your commentary and discussion about the sacred ground: the petroglyphs--although protected, disregarded and thoughtlessly swept aside for this-and-that road extension onto the apple of the developer's ever-West-looking eye. The West Mesa is Albuquerque's emerging horizon as well as our landfill-of-a-window-into-our-past. I hope we can learn to reflect on it and see ourselves in it, rather than just forget it all.
Anonymous says:
Apr 15, 2009 09:01 AM
Nice article. Thanks. Indifferent, unkind or heartless attitudes too often are not limited to any single aspect of the world around us. They tend to be sweeping, taking in at the same time, the personal and impersonal (including either gender), and the physical world itself.
Anonymous says:
Apr 15, 2009 09:16 AM
The violence of American culture is routinely dismissed by those who blame the victims--and trivialized by press coverage which describes this violence in the abstract.

The annual death toll of hundreds of migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border comes readily to mind: this huge ocean of suffering--like the violent deaths of prostitutes and drug users--is made easier to ignore because its victims are marginalized by our public language. Call a faceless someone "illegal" and you have created a ghetto of "other-ness" where compassion becomes optional.

Those in the mainstream who ignore violence on the margins do so at the peril of their own humanity.

Anonymous says:
Apr 15, 2009 09:24 AM
Does it matter whether these were women or men that were killed? The bottom line is that they were human lives that were taken and the bodies tossed away as though they were worthless. If they were part of the sex trade and used drugs the main culprit is the men that seek these type of extracurricular activities. If there were no demand from men for this then there would be no sex trade to speak of.

I'm not absolving the women, however, the driving force behind this is men seeking sex and men looking to profit from providing sex. My guess is that there are VERY few women prostitutes that actually want to be prostitutes. I find it very unlikely that these women look forward to having sexual contact with the type of men that seek their services. They may act as though they do to boost the fragile ego of the men they serve but that's all it ACT...

For whatever reason(s) these women got into situations that they either feel stuck in or are forced into...again, I'm not absolving the women but this is a trade that is driven by, demanded by and continued by MEN. The relationship that the author portrays to the land and the women is spot on.

Just as the men have used these women and discarded them when their usefulness is done so too have men raped the earth through mining, logging, development, etc. It has NOT been the women that have done this, it's been the egotistic and greedy man looking to take, take, take and never consider his actions or the by-product of his exploitations. Until we awaken, lose our egos and work towards the greater good of humanity and the earth we will continue to find the spoiled landscapes and the devastation of lives (human and wild).

One Man's View...
Anonymous says:
Apr 15, 2009 10:01 AM
A great, sad, and poignant essay. Thanks...I think. We live among so much violence that yes, we shrug it off. That the women were prostitutes made it easier for some. Witness some of the mean-spirited responses right here. I guess it's easy to blame the victim when one has lived such a smart life full of perfect decisions. Like, um...nobody. The angry 'screw them' responses the author wrote about are perhaps sadder even then the murders. We've even gotten to the sad place where we shrug off the recent spate of mass murders that has included youngsters. Anyway...from a man's perspective.
Anonymous says:
Apr 15, 2009 11:34 AM
I have often wondered when I walk the land where ever I am, who may lay beneath, what stories have gone untold. To blame the women for their lifestyles, is another easy way to dismiss that which horrifies us. Many of those women, maybe all twelve, most likely came from homes where as children they suffered abuse. Many were probably made mentally ill and unable to make good choices. Some fell into drugs. Point is, they did not get there alone. Who ever did the murders, and being in one area strongly suggest it the work of a serial killer, is likely to be still out there. So what is that killer, a hero for cleaning up a 'mess of a life'?

Careful, the life you so easily dismiss, might be someday viewed as your own. One hundred years from now, where do you think your name will be known, if at all? Perhaps you might end up on some lost landscape, paved over, forgotten as hundreds of feet walk over you, your story, so much dust on the wind.

Nancy Louise
Anonymous says:
Apr 15, 2009 01:24 PM
"It has always been sacred ground of a sort. The West Mesa has value beyond real estate. It is home to burrowing owls and coyotes, quail and foxes. Even those who never follow winding game trails through sage and four-wing saltbush can look west of the city and know there are still open spaces to be found."

How is West Mesa different from what used to be downtown Albuquerque...or any other town in the west. Would the author prefer that only those who live in the west now be allowed to continue there? Isn't that the old and trite "close and lock the door behind you" syndrome?

I am a true lover of the outdoors, but I get a bit put out with the myopia expressed by people who decry the "value" of unspoiled lands to the point that all development must be stopped...frozen in time...because "I already have my piece of the dream."

Anonymous says:
Apr 17, 2009 04:38 AM

Your digression about real estate seems to miss the exploitation parallel - where life and land are narrowly viewed for those qualities related to the quick hit and short term profit, both life and land are similarly degraded.

Excellent point Laura.
Anonymous says:
Apr 17, 2009 09:43 AM
If indeed the points are parallel, then how can I "digress"? I simply chose to comment on the other point the author was making. I do not at all disagree that there are horrible iniquities in the way "we" treat certain classes of individuals in our society...but equating human suffering with building houses as parallel is somewhat of a stretch--to me, anyway.
Anonymous says:
Apr 17, 2009 02:39 PM
...for your insightful and moving piece. There is an art to crawling out of your own skin -- race, gender, age -- even if imperfectly and for a short time, and attempting to see others as they see the world, and as the world sees them. Your story helps in that leveling process. The article also provides a kind of public mourning for these daughters, aunts, mothers, sisters. I hope it's helpful for their families. Thank you, and thanks HCN for providing the forum.