“It still hurts,” says Rafael Melendez, who organized a rally to demand justice and to honor his father Valente Acosta-Bustillos, who was killed by Albuquerque police nearly two years ago at his home in the South Broadway neighborhood. Melendez is leading his family and community in a renewed effort to demand the arrest and prosecution of his father’s killers. Surrounded by generations of family, Melendez said the courage for this renewed effort came from the support of a coalition of family, friends, neighbors and members of the Party for Socialism and Liberation.
In March 2020, at the onset of the COVID pandemic, 52-year-old Acosta-Bustillos, an undocumented, working-class immigrant, was accosted by APD officers Edgar Sandoval and Joseph Bush after receiving a call from a family member who was concerned for his welfare. Because of the mandate to isolate, the family relied on APD to conduct a “welfare check.” It was also well-known to APD that Acosta-Bustillos suffered from diagnosed mental health issues.
When the officers arrived, Acosta-Bustillos was doing yardwork and in no apparent distress or danger. He then asked the officers to leave his property. Instead of reporting that Acosta-Bustillos was in fact all right, Sandoval and Bush became aggressive and threatening, which frightened Acosta-Bustillos.
The officers, deciding to escalate the situation from the only purpose they had — a welfare check — ran Acosto-Bustillos’ name through their system and found an outstanding warrant for a minor offense of missing a court date during COVID. Acosta-Bustillos, fearful and confused, retreated into his home. Sandoval and Bush followed him inside despite Acosta-Bustillos’s objections. Once cornered inside, Sandoval shot Acosta-Bustillos three times, claiming that the shovel in Acosta-Bustillos’s hand presented a “threat of great bodily harm.”
His family, alongside community members, have fought for justice ever since his killing.
Descanso unveiled to honor Acosta-Bustillos
Feb. 5 was chosen as the day to organize a ceremony to mark this crime and memorialize Acosta-Bustillos by unveiling a permanent descanso in his honor at an intersection near the home where he lived. The ceremony celebrated his life, but it also mourned him — stolen too soon from family, neighbors, and his community by Albuquerque police. Attendees also called to abolish a cruel and inhumane criminal “justice” system and demanded the arrest, prosecution and conviction of the killer cops Sandoval and Bush.
The ongoing anguish was clearly etched on the faces of the family members lovingly surrounding Melendez in a show of solidarity, and tears were shed once again at the remembrance of Acosta-Bustillos. “I will forever miss my dad and always feel like part of my heart is missing, all because of two officers who were not trained on how to respect the community they said they would protect,” Melendez said. A simple message on a t-shirt worn by a young family member spoke volumes: “I miss you, grandpa.”
More than 70 community members joined chants led by PSL organizers of “Justice for Valente” and “Jail killer cops!”
“We’re here to honor your father with your family and our community. We will continue to fight for justice for Valente, and for officers Edgar Sandoval and Joseph Bush to be fired and charged with murder,” PSL organizer Ramona Malczynski affirmed.
Jose Enriquez, a local carpenter and son of a Mexican father and Guatemalan mother and a PSL organizer, said, “People in power like to demonize working-class immigrants, to characterize them as gangsters, drug dealers, rapists or murderers, even though these social problems exist across ethnicities and races.” Enriquez further noted that the ruling class system of law enforcement “demonizes poor, working people as ‘criminals.’”
PSL organizer and doctor Nadia Marsh reported that people with untreated mental illness are “16 times more likely to be shot by police during an encounter” and comprise “up to 50 percent of all fatal police shootings.” These victims are also “less likely to have a weapon or to have attacked the police.” Marsh additionally noted the lack of access to mental health care, especially in New Mexico.
Mickey McConnell, a 50-year resident of the South Broadway neighborhood, spoke of his past experience on the Civilian Police Oversight Agency, referring to it as “a howling fraud” and saying that the community members on that commission were rarely taken seriously. “If we meant to do anything, we had no power to do it. It was meaningless. It’s tokenism writ large. They would put on a dog and pony show. If anyone brought up an issue, they put a bunch of old, retired military veterans on it who called everybody who had any issues with the police a ‘punk,’” McConnell explained.
McConnell added, “I’ve become painfully aware of the disrespect that the police have towards the people that live here [in the South Broadway neighborhood].” McConnell cited derogatory and racist language used by APD to describe people in the neighborhood. “I used to ride around with them.” During one of these ride-alongs, McConnell “noticed this policeman … had a gun right here [points to his ankle]. I said, ‘What the hell is that for? You got guns all over the place.’ He told me, ‘It’s a drop.’ If they got into an incident and wanted to say the guy had a gun, they had that gun, and had removed all of its ID markers, and they would leave it there. And he told me that!”
One of the last speakers, and perhaps the most moving reminder of the tragic consequences of Acosta-Bustillos’s murder, was his daughter Veronica Ajanel who, through a cascade of tears, shyly took the microphone and recalled with her small, soft voice the warmth and support that she came to expect and cherish from her father. “My dad would want us to remember the good things,” Ajanel said. Ajanel talked about how her father always took her out for dinner on her birthday, and that one year, Acosta-Bustillos took her out three times during the same birthday week. She also remembered being awakened in the mornings with a burrito that Acosta-Bustillos had made and delivered to her bedside before she had barely opened her eyes. “It was the best burrito,” Anjanel tearfully declared with affection — a heart-rending testimony to the bond of love between a father and a daughter that deserves to be heard by Acosta-Bustillos’s killers.
Purple cloth roses (purple was Acosta-Bustillos’s favorite color) were distributed and laid one-by-one at the base of the descanso, which now stands as a permanent memorial to a loved and respected resident of the South Broadway community that still feels the sting of injustice and which also represents the building of meaningful working-class relationships against police terror and the criminal injustice system.
Justice for Valente Acosta-Bastillos! Arrest and prosecute Edgar Sandoval and Joseph Bush! Justice for all victims of brutal and murderous policing!
Photo: Family and community members at the descanso unveiling ceremony. Liberation photo