By Mike Linn
It’s a quarter till 2 on Saturday morning and downtown Portales is in deep slumber. With the exception of truckers and the isolated university party, the city is as calm and serene as a Louisiana swamp at dusk.
Travel 20 miles north on New Mexico Highway 70 and the view can be strikingly different: It’s not uncommon to see red and blue lights ricochet off billboards as bar patrons exit Prince Street clubs.
One month ago a drive-by shooting occurred at the Prince Street Lounge around 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning. The victim of the shooting survived, but eight others in Curry County have not in the past 16 months, according to 9th Judicial District Attorney Brett Carter.
When it comes to homicide, 20 miles and more than 20,000 people make a big difference: Since 1998, Curry County has endured 28 homicides. Roosevelt County just one.
“Portales is a smaller community, more people know each other. They tend to keep an eye on things that are going around on their streets and neighborhoods and you just don’t have the violence that I think you see in a bigger city,” Carter said.
Homicide is defined as a person who kills another. The charge will show up in police statistics even if the accused pleas to a lesser charge, like voluntary manslaughter, said Portales Police Capt. Lonnie Berry. He said vehicular homicide is filed under fatality, not murder or homicide.
The last time Portales police charged a person with murder was in 1998, when a fight at a college party left one man dead.
Berry said he doesn’t have police statistics beyond 1998, but he remembers roughly five other murders in the city in the last 15 years.
Carter believes gang activity in Clovis can be attributed to the recent rash of homicides in the city, but many gang members are from other areas.
“Some of our gang members come out of California and are used to using weapons to settle their disputes,” Carter said. “If one or two of those guys gets chased out of California or leave … they tend to come out this way because we don’t have tough sentencing that California has for repeat offenders.”
Berry said police and Portales residents have worked together to curb gang violence in the city, something Carter confirmed.
“We’ve worked very hard to make sure gang activity is not an accepted protocol,” Berry said. “When we start to see signs of gang activity we go after it aggressively. It’s not a police department project; it’s a community project.”
Berry said he has Portales Municipal Schools Superintendent Dr. Jim Holloway and Portales High School Principal Melvin Nusser on his speed dial and they talk frequently.
“We’re on a first-name, very close working relationship with each other,” he said.
Another difference between the cities that plays a big factor in crime rate is Clovis has about four or five times as many late-night bars. In Roosevelt County, there’s just one.
“Most of the time around the violence there’s some alcohol involved,” Berry said.
Alcohol was a factor in a shooting at the Valle del Solle Apartments in August where one man was critically injured, Berry said.
Even compared to other towns the same size, Portales seems like a rare gem with a no-murder streak that would make any mayor proud.
Sierra County has roughly 4,500 fewer residents than Roosevelt County but has experienced 15 homicides between 1998 and 2002. During that same span, Torrance County had seven and Lincoln County six. Give or take 1,000 residents and both counties are the same size as Roosevelt.
“This is not to say we won’t have a problem this weekend,” Berry said. “But we try to put things in place to be prepared. You prepare for what you can and if you have to react, you react as best you can.”