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Man shot, arrest made in New Mexico protest over Spanish conqueror's statue

A 31-year-old man has been arrested in a shooting that happened as protesters in New Mexico's largest city tried to tear down a bronze statue of a Spanish conquistador outside the Albuquerque Museum, police said Tuesday.

Shooting occurred near confrontation between Juan de Oñate statue protesters, group of armed men

Protesters attach a chain to a statue of Spanish conquerer Juan de Oñate in Albuquerque, N.M., on Monday. One man was shot during an exchange between protesters and armed members of the New Mexico Civil Guard, a civilian group trying to protect the monument. (Anthony Jackson/The Albuquerque Journal/The Associated Press)

A 31-year-old man has been arrested in a shooting that happened as protesters in New Mexico's largest city tried to tear down a bronze statue of a Spanish conquistador outside the Albuquerque Museum, police said Tuesday.

The shooting occurred near a confrontation on Monday night between protesters and a group of armed men trying to protect the statue of Juan de Oñate, before protesters wrapped a chain around it and began tugging on it while chanting, "Tear it down!" One protester repeatedly swung a pickaxe at the base of the statue.

Moments later, gunshots rang out down the street and people yelled that someone had been shot.

The shooting prompted the city to announce that the statue would be removed until officials determine the next steps.

In a statement, police said detectives arrested Stephen Ray Baca and that he was jailed on suspicion of aggravated battery. Authorities had said earlier that several people were detained for questioning. Online court records did not list an attorney for Baca who could comment on his behalf.

The man who was shot was taken to a hospital and was listed in critical but stable condition late Monday, said Albuquerque police spokesperson Gilbert Gallegos. 

Albuquerque police detain members of the New Mexico Civil Guard, an armed civilian group, following the shooting of a man during a protest over a statue of Spanish conquerer Juan de Oñate on Monday. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/The Albuquerque Journal/The Associated Press)

Baca had been among those trying to protect the statue when protesters "appeared to maliciously pursue him," according to a criminal complaint file by police in connection with the charge lodged against him.

Video posted on social media showed protesters hitting Baca with what police described as a longboard skateboard and punching him. Then he opened fire with a handgun.

After the shooting, other armed people encircled Baca in an apparent attempt to protect him, the video showed.

Online court records did not list an attorney for Baca who could comment on his behalf. The man who was shot was hospitalized Monday night in critical but stable condition, Gallegos said.

In a statement posted on Twitter, Albuquerque Police Chief Michael Geier said investigators had received "reports about vigilante groups possibly instigating this violence."

"If this is true will be holding them accountable to the fullest extent of the law, including federal hate group designation and prosecution," Geier said.

Mayor, governor condemn violence

A confrontation erupted between protesters and a group of armed men who were trying to protect the statue of Juan de Oñate before protesters wrapped a chain around it and began tugging on it while chanting: "Tear it down." One protester repeatedly swung a pickaxe at the base of the statue.

Moments later, a few gunshots could be heard down the street, and people started yelling that someone had been shot.

Albuquerque police detain members of the New Mexico Civil Guard, an armed civilian group on June 15. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/The Albuquerque Journal via AP)

Gallegos said police used tear gas and flash bangs to protect the officers who intervened and detained those involved in the shooting. He said they were disarmed and taken into custody for questioning as police worked to secure the scene.

"The shooting tonight was a tragic, outrageous and unacceptable act of violence and it has no place in our city," Mayor Tim Keller said in a statement.

"Our diverse community will not be deterred by acts meant to divide or silence us. Our hearts go out to the victim, his family and witnesses whose lives were needlessly threatened tonight. This sculpture has now become an urgent matter of public safety."

Democrat Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued a statement in which she took aim at the armed individuals, saying they were there to menace protesters. She said no matter who strikes first, there would be no room in New Mexico for any sort of escalation of what she called "reckless, violent rhetoric."

"The instigators this evening will be rooted out, they will be investigated, and they will be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law," she said.

Indigenous opposition

The violence came just hours after activists in northern New Mexico celebrated the removal of another likeness of Oñate that was on public display at a cultural centre in the community of Alcalde. Rio Arriba County officials removed it to safeguard it from possible damage and to avoid civil unrest ahead of a scheduled protest.

A forklift pried the massive bronze statue of Oñate on horseback from a concrete pedestal. Cheers erupted among bystanders who saw the memorial as an affront to Indigenous people and an obstacle to greater racial harmony, though several people also arrived to defend the tribute to Oñate.

County manager Tomas Campos said the statue was placed in storage for its own protection. He expects the three-member county commission to solicit public comment on what to do next with the public works project commissioned by the state in the early 1990s.

"This is public property and I'm not going to allow it to be damaged," Campos said. "Plus, I don't feel like risking my sheriff's deputies or state police to defend it."

The Oñate statues have been a source of criticism for decades.

Oñate, who arrived in present-day New Mexico in 1598, is celebrated as a cultural father figure in communities along the Upper Rio Grande that trace their ancestry to Spanish settlers. But he's also reviled for his brutality.

To Native Americans, Oñate is known for having ordered the right feet cut off of 24 captive tribal warriors, which was precipitated by the killing of Oñate's nephew. In 1998, someone sawed the right foot off the statue — an incident that weighed in the decision to stash it away.

Monuments to European conquerors and colonists around the world are being pulled down amid an intense re-examination of racial injustices in the wake of George Floyd's death at the hands of police.

Albuquerque city officials have promised to convene a council of community leaders and artists to consider the concerns about the public art piece as they look for "creative solutions."

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