New Mexico statue protest shooting: Everything we know

Ryan Martinez, 23, has been charged with attempted murder and aggravated assault over a shooting in the New Mexico city of Española that left one man wounded. Oliver O’Connell reports

Oliver O'Connell
New York
Friday 29 September 2023 17:33 BST
Scuffle and shooting at New Mexico protest over installation of Spanish conquistador statue

A demonstration against a statue of a Spanish conquistador in New Mexico took a terrifying turn on Thursday (28 September) when a man opened fire hitting a protester.

Hours before the violence unfolded in the city of Española, a group had been protesting the reinstallation of a statue of Juan de Oñate, a controversial figure in the state’s history for his oppressive and brutal treatment of Native Americans during Spain’s conquest of the Southwestern United States.

Native American protesters held signs that read “not today Oñate,” and “celebrate resistance, not conquistadores.” Among the counterprotesters at the scene was a man wearing a red hat bearing the words “Make America Great Again.”

The man reportedly spewed profanities before jumping a wall and firing a single shot at the crowd. A protester, who had identified himself as Native American to a photographer from The Albuquerque Journal, was struck in the upper torso and taken to the hospital.

Rio Arriba County sheriff’s officials said 23-year-old Ryan Martinez was taken into custody and no other suspects are being sought in connection with the shooting.

Here’s everything we know so far:

What happened?

Demonstrators had gathered outside county offices in the city of Española in northern New Mexico to protest against the installation of a statue of Juan de Oñate.

The installation was cancelled and protesters and counter-protesters had lingered in the area.

A man earlier seen wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat became involved in an altercation with protesters around 12.30pm local time.

In the struggle he fell over a barricade before producing a gun, which he brandished and fired causing people to scatter.

One of the protesters, a man who had identified himself as Native American to a press photographer shortly before the incident, was shot in the upper torso.

The violence unfolded just outside the sheriff’s office. Jennifer Marley, an organiser for the Native American rights group The Red Nation, described Juan de Oñate’s legacy as one of genocidal violence.

“It was awful. This was a peaceful call to action. We were there to celebrate the fact that the statue was not going up,” Ms Marley told The Associated Press. “It’s really ironic, I was basically saying that this violence is ongoing ... even when we are being peaceful and prayerful. The shooting began while I was speaking.”

The victim was taken to a nearby hospital. No further details have been released by officials.

A demonstrator stands paying homage at a mural in protest against the reinstallation of a 16th-century New Mexico conquistador
A demonstrator stands paying homage at a mural in protest against the reinstallation of a 16th-century New Mexico conquistador (Getty Images)

Who was arrested in the shooting?

According to KOB4, the suspect, reportedly known for being an online troll, fled the scene in a white Tesla.

Rio Arriba County sheriff’s officials said Ryan Martinez, 23, was taken into custody in connection with the shooting. He has been charged with attempted murder and aggravated assault with the use of a deadly weapon.

Much of the incident was captured in photos and video and Mr Martinez is clearly seen holding and pointing a gun.

Authorities said that a motive for the shooting was unclear.

At a brief press conference following the incident, County Sheriff Billy Merrifield told reporters: “Once again, the saddest part about this is we have another incident of gun violence.”

Ryan Martinez, right, talks with law enforcement before violence erupted as activists protested a postponed installation of a statue of Spanish conquistador Juan de Onate
Ryan Martinez, right, talks with law enforcement before violence erupted as activists protested a postponed installation of a statue of Spanish conquistador Juan de Onate (AP)

What was the protest about?

The planned installation of a statue of conquistador Juan de Oñate had sparked anger.

Oñate arrived in present-day New Mexico in 1598 and memorialising him divides opinion among local communities. He is celebrated by some as a cultural father figure, but condemned by others for his brutality.

To Native Americans, Oñate is known for having ordered the right feet cut off of 24 captive tribal warriors after his soldiers stormed the Acoma Pueblo’s mesa-top “sky city”. That attack was supposedly precipitated by the killing of Oñate’s nephew.

In 1998, someone sawed the right foot off a statue in protest.

A counter demonstrator listens to an attendee during a protest against the reinstallation of a 16th-century New Mexico conquistador statue at the Rio Arriba County building on September 28, 2023 in Espanola, New Mexico
A counter demonstrator listens to an attendee during a protest against the reinstallation of a 16th-century New Mexico conquistador statue at the Rio Arriba County building on September 28, 2023 in Espanola, New Mexico (Getty Images)

According to the AP, Sheriff Billy Merrifield had expressed concerns about safety issues to county commissioners about reinstalling the statue in Española outside the county building. He said he was grateful to the commissioners who decided against proceeding.

Some Hispanics, however, have pointed to the statue as a symbol of their heritage.

The brutal leader eagerly sought the riches of North America during his governorship and succeeded in his country’s conquest of what is now the Southwestern United States.

He was the son of wealthy parents in Zacatecas, located in north-central Mexico, and gained a more prominent status after he married a daughter of Aztec empire conqueror Hernán Cortés.

Oñate’s request to invade and govern what would become New Mexico was approved in 1595, but it was not until three years later that his expedition of 400 settlers finally began its northern journey, according to Britannica.

They soon crossed the Rio Grande and set up headquarters near the site of Los Alamos, from there parties were sent in all directions to search for gold.

Many settlers wanted to return to Mexico, but Oñate’s cruel treatment prevented them from leaving; meanwhile, his measures against the indigenous people were even harsher.

“Soldiers returned, slaughtering at least 800 warriors, women and children. The Spaniards enslaved most of the survivors and cut a foot off of 24 young men as a warning to other rebellious pueblos,” Burnett added.

In 1601, Oñate continued his hunt for treasures and headed further north, but returned empty-handed and found that most of his colony had left during his absence.

In an attempt to recover his reputation, Oñate led 30 soldiers on an expedition to the Colorado River and the Gulf of California in hopes of finding gold, another expedition that turned out to be unsuccessful.

In 1607 he stood down from his position and was later found guilty of cruelty, immorality and false reporting. He was then exiled from the colony, fined and deprived of his titles.

What has been the reaction to the shooting?

Organisers of the protest against the statue’s installation said the incident demonstrated the “legacy of violence and hate” that the statue represented.

Janene Yazzie, Indian Collective organiser, said: “This demonstrates exactly what we are fighting for.

“We have been pointing out that this hasn’t been about just a statue but about what it represents and the legacy of violence and hate that it is a foundation for.”

Meanwhile, Rio Arriba County Commission Chair Alex Naranjo told KOB4 that he planned to push for the rededication of the statue.

“If it was up to me, that statue would go back up – when? I don’t know,” Mr Naranjo said. “But the fact of the matter is, I’m not going to melt that statue just to satisfy two or three individuals that are not even from this reality.”

A man who identified himself to the Albuquerque Journal as Ryan Martinez, of East Mountains, pulls a gun during a rally
A man who identified himself to the Albuquerque Journal as Ryan Martinez, of East Mountains, pulls a gun during a rally (AP)

Has anything like this happened before?

Yes. The incident is the second shooting at a protest over an Oñate statue, the first of which occurred in June 2020 outside the Albuquerque Museum, in Albuquerque, when demonstrators attempted to tear another depiction of the conquistador down.

A confrontation had erupted between protesters and a group of armed men who were trying to protect the bronze monument. Protesters then wrapped a chain around it and tugged repeatedly on it and one repeatedly swung a pick axe. Gunshots then rang out down the street.

The statue was removed ahead of any decision about its future.

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