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.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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