ALBUQUERQUE — Police have arrested a man they consider the “prime suspect” in the murder of four Muslim men since last winter, the chief of the Albuquerque Police Department said Tuesday.
Chief Harold Medina wrote on Twitter that the man was driving a car that police say was linked to the fatal shooting.
The latest murder took place on Friday, sounding the alarm in this southwestern town, which the authorities had sought to turn into a refuge for immigrants. Hundreds of refugees from Afghanistan have settled in the city over the past year since the withdrawal of the US military presence there.
Chief Medina said police would provide more details later on Tuesday.
For several days, residents have been reeling from the possibility that someone could target Muslims, in a city already rocked by a spike in killings.
One of the victims, Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, 27, left Pakistan to attend the University of New Mexico. He had become president of his graduate student association before embarking on urban planning. Another, Aftab Hussein, 41, worked at a local cafe.
Naeem Hussain, a 25-year-old man who was killed on Friday, had started his own trucking business and had become a US citizen weeks earlier.
The recent killings were preceded by the shooting death in November of Mohammad Ahmadi, 62, a Muslim immigrant from Afghanistan, who was attacked outside the grocery store he owned with his brother.
“There are recent arrivals who are scared, and there are American-born Muslims who are also nervous,” said Michelle Melendez, director of the city’s Office of Equity and Inclusion. “The victims are everything from professionals to students to working class people.”
Rushing to respond, the Albuquerque Police Department has begun beefing up patrols around businesses and places of worship that serve as gathering places for the city’s Muslims, whose numbers are estimated at between 5,000 and 10,000. in a city of over half a million.
In a plea for public help, police over the weekend released a photo of a car, believed to be a dark gray Volkswagen sedan, which they believe was used in the murders.
The fatal shootings came amid a string of killings in the city, perhaps explaining why it didn’t seem unusual that the first two killings of Muslim men went relatively unnoticed.
In 2021, 116 people in the city were killed, according to crime statistics from the Albuquerque Police Department, which exclude justified or negligent homicides. It was the city’s deadliest year on record; one person was killed on average every three days in November 2021, when Mr Ahmadi was found dead.
Things have only gotten worse this year. As of Monday, homicides are on track to reach 131, surpassing last year by more than a dozen. That’s more than double the average number of homicides from 2010 to 2020, when the city recorded about 53 murders each year.
At the same time, Albuquerque, like other cities across the country, has struggled to fill vacancies in his font. Since 2014, the department has been under a settlement agreement with the Justice Department to improve its practices, reached after accusations of civil rights violations and excessive force.
Police officials have remained largely silent about their investigation into the recent killings, beyond asking for help in locating the sedan and saying they believe an individual committed the acts.
“While we don’t explain why we believe this, there is a strong commonality between all of our victims: their race and religion,” Kyle Hartsock, deputy commander of the department’s criminal investigations division, said in a statement. communicated. “We take this very seriously and want the public’s help in identifying this cowardly individual.”
Before getting into truck driving, Naeem Hussain, the latest victim, had worked as a case manager for Lutheran Family Services, helping refugees. It was in the parking lot of this organization that Mr. Hussain, a Pashtun speaker who had family roots in Pakistan and Afghanistan, was killed while he was in his car.
Ahmad Assed, who grew up in Albuquerque and is now president of the city’s largest mosque, the Islamic Center of New Mexico, described the community as a “welcoming melting pot.” He almost never felt like he stood out as a Muslim, he said, until a woman was arrested and charged of trying to burn down the mosque last year.
Mr Assed, born in Dearborn, Michigan, said that even with growing xenophobia after the September 11 attacks, the city seemed to continue to treat the Muslim community with respect, regardless of religion and nationality.
Now many of the city’s Muslims feel like targets, and fear is even driving some people to consider leaving New Mexico.
Indeed, the murders have rocked an increasingly diverse city, where immigration, largely from Mexico and other Latin American countries, is a major source of population growth and an integral part of the ‘history of the city. Immigrants from the Middle East, including Muslims and Christians from Lebanon and Syria, deposited stakes in Albuquerque and other parts of New Mexico in the late 19th century.
The city has gradually seen a new wave of Muslim immigrants in recent decades, many of whom have come to study at the University of New Mexico. A group of Muslim students came together in the mid-1980s to form the Islamic Center of New Mexico, which was attended by the three most recent victims.
Many members of the city’s Muslim community hail from Pakistan and Afghanistan, while others hail from countries like India, Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Sri Lanka. Under the Trump administration, when concerns grew about bigotry directed against Muslims, officials passed a bill affirming Albuquerque’s status as an “immigrant-friendly” city. It prevented federal immigration officers from entering city-run facilities and city employees from collecting immigration status information.
At least 300 Afghan refugees have arrived in Albuquerque over the past year, bolstering a growing community reflected today by at least eight different places of worship for Muslims. Albuquerque has bolstered its outreach efforts with translators speaking Arabic, Dari, Farsi, Urdu and Pashto — languages officials have prioritized in recent days when sharing information about the killings.
Although Muslims in the United States faces violence and discrimination after 9/11 and during Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaignthe apparent serial nature of the attacks in Albuquerque — and the nagging mystery of who is responsible — is particularly baffling, said Sumayyah Waheed, senior policy adviser at Muslim Advocates, a civil rights group.
“I can’t think of an incident like this,” she said.
Ms Waheed said it was concerning that Albuquerque police apparently only established a possible link between the attacks after the deaths of three Muslim men.
Statistics from the Albuquerque Police Department show that the racial distribution of its employees, including officers and civilians, roughly matches that of the city, where about half the residents are Latino and 38 percent are white. In June 2021, there were 17 Asian employees out of nearly 1,480 people in the department. It is unclear how many officers are Muslim, and a spokesperson said the department did not collect data on religious affiliation.
Although Naeem Hussain’s death on Friday heightened concerns in his community, Ehsan Shahalami, his brother-in-law, said the killing came as a shock.
“There was never any indication that he felt threatened or scared of anything,” Mr Shahalami said. “On the contrary, he was very fond of Albuquerque. He wanted to give back to the place that welcomed him.