Gunfire from drive-by shootings rang out 302 times in Albuquerque last year. Four bullets tore through a mobile home’s thin bedroom walls, just feet away from two teenage boys. One bullet narrowly missed a state senator’s daughter. Yet another killed a 5-year-old girl in her sleep — and prompted the governor’s controversial move to limit where firearms could be carried.
Most of the others went under the radar.
Despite their frequency, there is no single database — local, state or federal — that tracks the number of drive-by shootings or the harm they cause. In an email, the Albuquerque Police Department said there were 302 such shootings in 2023, but despite repeated questions about the incidents, it provided no specifics aside from the number. In interviews with Searchlight New Mexico and in statements to police, residents have reported being terrorized by repeated shootings that have destroyed their property, terrified their children and, in some cases, driven them from their homes. Experts say the high-profile cases are just a fraction of a problem that goes largely unreported.
“APD told us, ‘You need to move. We can’t protect you anymore,’” said one mother, who said her family has been the target of nine drive-by shootings. “We have moved three times now. We don’t even call the police anymore.”
Albuquerque police acknowledge the ubiquity of these shootings and point to a number of challenges in investigating them: Some are gang-related. Victims often decline to speak with police. The violence is often over by the time officers arrive on the scene. And it’s not unusual for the victims to be random bystanders with no idea who the shooters might have been.
“You’re firing at a houseful of people. You have no idea who’s in there,” said Jeffery Barnard, acting commander of APD’s investigative services division.
While drive-by shootings account for a major portion of Albuquerque’s gun violence, most victims survive, he added. That’s because the shooting is often intended to terrorize rather than kill. The shooter is firing from a moving vehicle and may also be inexperienced with firearms. As a result, out of the more than 300 recorded incidents last year, APD counted only 77 homicides with a firearm within the same time frame. Experts say those fatal shooting statistics represent merely a fraction of the broader gun violence.
These shootings “don’t discriminate” based on where you live, police say. Nor are all drive-by shootings attributable to gangs. Last year, Solomon Peña, a Republican candidate for the New Mexico Legislature, was charged with orchestrating a string of drive-by shootings at the houses of incumbent Democrats. One bullet flew so close to a state senator’s sleeping daughter that it blew dust from the drywall onto her face.
“It’s really part of a phenomenon of the hidden in plain sight problems that we have in our communities,” said Michael Scott, director of Arizona State University’s Center for Problem-Oriented Policing. In 2007, the center published a series of guides to address problems for law enforcement agencies, including drive-by shootings. Although that was 17 years ago, the guides remain among the most up-to-date research on the matter.
“This happens very often in police agencies,” Scott said about drive-bys. “They’re sitting on top of a very large or growing problem, but they’re blind to it, because their conventional records systems don’t really alert them to the commonality.”
Five years, nearly 40 deaths
According to the Gun Violence Archive, a national nonprofit that tracks shootings across the country, 38 people have been killed in Albuquerque by drive-by shootings in the past five years. This data comes with an asterisk, though: It relies on police department press conferences and reports.
Fatal drive-by shootings
According to the Gun Violence Archive, 38 people have been killed in Albuquerque drive-by shootings from Jan. 1, 2019, to Dec. 31, 2023. Here’s how three of the nation’s largest cities compare for the same time frame:
- Los Angeles: 67
- Houston: 190
- Chicago: 391
In Albuquerque, the shootings factor into a “cycle of gun violence,” in official parlance. APD’s Barnard said it’s not uncommon for young people to enter that cycle by committing a drive-by shooting with a gun that, ultimately, turns up in a murder investigation.
“The fact that we’ve seen these guns used in drive-bys and then escalate into further things — that shows that person has a willingness” to commit more deadly crimes, he said.
That’s what happened in the 2020 case of Albuquerque teenager Noah Duran. That October, police responded to a call from Duran’s mother, who was horrified when she discovered he was hiding a handgun. Police seized the gun but stopped short of arresting her son. A month later, Duran was charged with fatally shooting a 22-year-old in a drug deal gone bad; his friend, Jaden Sandoval, awaits sentencing for the crime. When detectives ran the handgun through their system, they found it had been used in a drive-by shooting just days before Duran’s mother called 911.
New Mexicans die from gun violence at a rate nearly double the national average, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Only two states, Louisiana and Mississippi, recorded higher rates of gun-related deaths.
Mixed results for prevention efforts
In recent years, Albuquerque has invested heavily in gun violence prevention, including an automated gunshot detection system called ShotSpotter that alerts dispatchers to the sound of gunfire.
In late 2020, the city set aside $12 million for Albuquerque Community Safety, an unarmed public safety department that sends social workers and trained mental health professionals to the scenes of 911 calls for homelessness and mental health crises. In a December report, the ACS Violence Intervention Program touted its success by saying that 93 percent of people who were deemed at high risk for being in the “cycle” of gun violence did not commit further violent crimes after speaking with an ACS responder.
Other measures have not been as successful, according to advocates and community leaders. Mayor Tim Keller’s Gun Violence Task Force, launched in 2021, has come under particular criticism from various members who have since left or become disillusioned.
“We weren’t doing anything productive,” said LaQuonte Barry, an activist and food truck owner who couldn’t recall the last time the task force met. “It’s a Band-Aid. They do this just to have a quick resolution, and then we’re right back to the same problem.”
The problem has acutely affected New Mexico youth. Recently published data on the state’s “Gun Violence Dashboard” reports that firearm-related emergency room visits increased more than 70 percent for children aged 1 to 17, from 2018 to 2022.
After a 5-year-old girl and an 11-year-old boy were killed in Albuquerque drive-by shootings last summer, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a public health order that prohibited the carrying of firearms in public in Albuquerque and Bernalillo County. Almost immediately, the district attorney, chief of police and Bernalillo County sheriff announced they would not enforce the order.
Then came the backlash: a lawsuit from the National Rifle Association, which argued the order was an encroachment on constitutional rights, and criticism from liberals, including activist and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting survivor David Hogg, who argued there was “no such thing as a state public health emergency exception to the U.S. Constitution.” The governor later pared back the order, prohibiting guns in parks and playgrounds in Albuquerque and Bernalillo County.
Gun violence has taken center stage at the New Mexico State Legislature this year, where lawmakers have sponsored an array of measures. Among them are bills to mandate a waiting period on gun purchases and to raise the minimum age to purchase certain types of firearms.
In recent years, a growing body of research has focused on the mental health impacts of gun violence. A November study found that parents of children who survive gun violence show a marked increase in psychiatric disorders. A 2019 study looked at the impact on children who witness gun violence and found that many ended up taking protective measures — including staying home from school or carrying a gun of their own.
In the backdrop, the shootings continue. Last year, Albuquerque saw a rash of high-profile drive-bys. In August, the 5-year-old girl, Galilea Samaniego, was killed in her sleep in a southwest Albuquerque trailer park. A month later, 11-year-old Froylan Villegas was killed in a shooting outside of Albuquerque’s Isotopes ballpark.
Galilea was a victim of circumstance. Like so many killed by drive-by shootings, she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
She was spending the night in a neighbor’s trailer where the grandmother of a teenage boy had agreed to babysit the little girl and her two sisters.
It was just after 5:30 a.m. when a group of five teenagers between the ages of 15 and 19 tore through the neighborhood in two stolen cars, according to police, who said they were gunning for the teenage boy who lived there. Since middle school, he had been in a dispute over a girl with one of the alleged shooters, police said. Now, it came to a head.
At 5:48 a.m., Albuquerque’s ShotSpotter system detected the sound of eight gunshots. The two cars fled and the teen boy emerged unscathed. But the little girl, asleep in a bedroom, died from a shot to the head.
A few weeks later, the grandmother and the teenage boy packed up and left the trailer. Galilea’s family left for Mexico, according to the trailer’s landlord.
Meanwhile, the shootings continued. In November, the next occupant of that same trailer awoke to the sound of gunfire. Juan Sanchez and his wife had moved into the neighborhood two months earlier, just weeks after the shooting that left Galilea dead.
“Cuatro en la mañana,” Sanchez recalled, as he walked a reporter through the house, describing how the thunderous “bang, bang, bang” of gunfire woke him up at 4 in the morning. He found bullet holes above his headboard, in his bathroom and in the bed of his pickup truck: 24 by his count.
A week later, the trailer looked more like a crime scene than a home, with gaping holes in the walls and spiderweb cracks in the windows and mirrors. Sanchez said he didn’t plan to stay much longer.