A billboard recently displayed in Las Cruces raised some questions from city residents — along with the hackles of some city officials.
The billboard at the intersection of Missouri Avenue and South Solano Drive, sponsored by Juan Garcia of the Coalition of Conservatives in Action, shows a graphic photo highlighting the increase in crime in the city and placed blame on City Council.
“The intent was to call out the Las Cruces City Council for their failure to acknowledge the plight of the citizens and victims. Time and time again, citizens will go to Public Input and the indication is their concerns fall on deaf ears,” Garcia told New Mexico Sun. “As you can read, the councilors who spoke out against the board not once mentioned the establishment that has been criminally vandalized. Not in their narrative.”
Garcia is the chairman of the Coalition of Conservatives in Action. He legally immigrated to the U.S. with his family when he was 5 and dropped out from high school at 17 to join the U.S. Marine Corps, where he served for 25 years. He recently retired as a Department of Defense contractor.
The Coalition of Conservatives in Action describes itself on its website as a “grassroots in-action advocacy organization of independent, non-partisan, non-denominational, identity and color-blind citizens.” Members of the group seek to challenge, engage and hold appointed officials accountable by educating and informing citizens through civil discourse. The billboard is an example of this effort.
District 4 Las Cruces City Councilor Johana Bencomo told CBS4 the billboard is just a scare tactic.
“Groups like this funding this billboard are honestly, in my eyes, fearmongering,” Bencomo said, while admitting that crime is up in Las Cruces.
Garcia, who spoke during the Oct. 3 council meeting, said Bencomo’s response was sadly predictable.
“The message was not favorable towards the council, so it is not surprising she was against the message even though Councilor Bencomo herself agreed crime is rising. It is not Councilor Bencomo’s decision on how to get my message out,” he said. “The board is funded by a citizen and this is the message we want to share. The councilor was focused on an individual that very likely made some wrong decisions in life but totally ignored the establishment whose only fault was to be there to serve the community.
“For this, their windows have been destroyed, creating a mini-terror zone,” Garcia said. “The business across Solano has feces, drugs, syringes near their building near daily, requiring the proprietor to hire and spend his money to clean someone else’s mess. This should not be. We have numerous businesses building fences and spending their own money to protect themselves.”
He said the text on the board was very benign: “Las Cruces is NOT safe. Demand Change from Your City Councilor.”
“What is wrong with that message?” Garcia asked. “Why do citizens/forgotten victims need to beg and plead for the council to take action?”
He also noted the TV station did not seek his comments for its story.
According to the Las Cruces Police Department’s 2021 annual report, the city has seen an increase in violent crime over the past five years. In 2019, there were 500 violent crimes reported, and in 2021, after the height of the pandemic, there were more than 700.
Las Cruces resident Michael Vorgon told CBS4 he believes a mood of despair and disconnect is behind this spike.
“I think a lot of people just stopped caring and think they can get away with it,” Vorgon said. “I don’t think they really consider the consequences anymore.”
“There’s only so much that Las Cruces police or any police department can do. We need the help from individuals in our community. So if you see something that looks suspicious, call it in right away,” Dan Trujillo, a Las Cruces police spokesperson, told CBS4.
Las Cruces police also said their main concern was the uptick in property crime and wanted to remind people to lock their cars and not leave any valuables visible in the windows.
Garcia said the impact of more and more criminal activity is readily apparent. The rise in property crime and vandalism have made residents feel unsafe, he said.
“They have property, vehicles stolen right out of their driveways. Look around you at the vandalism and trash left by the criminal element,” Garcia said. “The rise in thefts. The increase in fentanyl. Property crime. Money wasted by citizens to protect themselves. Going to public establishments and accosted by personnel wanting money. Listen to some of the kids during public input at the City Council speaking of walking through a maze of syringes.”
He said the council needs to take these steps to show it is serious about reducing crime in the city:
“1. Call a criminal a criminal. 2. Stop defending and turning criminals into victims. Stop using poverty, racism, oppression as an excuse for crime. 3. People that need help should be helped. 4. Criminals need to know there are consequences for their acts instead of having a revolving door in the judicial system where they are let out nearly immediately after arrested. 5. The message of accountability and responsibility needs to be sounded 24/7.”
Garcia said he is determined to make his point — and his voice heard.