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Bulletin In Depth

Public officials grapple with threats, raising questions about local democracy 


A voicemail ends with a death threat. Racist hate spewed in a phone call. An unknown car parked outside the house. Social media posts calling for summary execution.

Threats of violence like these are well-suited for political thrillers. They evoke the high drama of a fictional character forced to choose between their safety and their beliefs. But it's become something of a reality for public officials in 2024. 

Elected officials interviewed by the Las Cruces Bulletin said they face a growing trend of threats and intimidation. The intimidation, which often comes via electronic media, is part of a nationwide drift toward political violence, national data shows. And the targets are most often against officials from marginalized communities. 

With a growing specter of violence, questions about democratic participation emerge as well. Local officials told the Bulletin that the experiences have made them reconsider—or at least reassess—their position in government. The result, however, is a greater resolve and conviction. 

"There's definitely pieces of paranoia that are there," said Johana Bencomo, a Las Cruces city councilor who recently received a death threat. "But I'm also feeling righteous anger. I'm not going to allow myself to be intimidated — because that's what the intent is." 

Intimidation as politics in America  

A January report by the Brennan Center for Justice, which surveyed elected officials from around the U.S., shed light on the situation nationwide.  

Researchers found that threats and intimidation of local officials had risen sharply. The report found that: 

  • 43 percent of state legislators experienced threats. 
  • 18 percent of local officeholders experienced threats. 
  • 38 percent of state legislators reported that the amount of abuse they experience has increased since first taking public office, while only 16 percent reported that it has decreased. 
  • 29 percent of state legislators reported that the seriousness of the incidents has increased, while only 12 percent reported that it has decreased. 

The report also found women and people of color were experiencing more threats compared to their colleagues. 

Intimidation and threats – especially against people from marginalized groups – reduce participation in democratic government in both historical and contemporary contexts, academic research shows. The Brennan Center report found that more than 40 percent of officeholders who'd experienced threats or violence were less likely to stay in office. 

"For women, the rates of possible attrition are higher, with approximately half saying they were less willing to continue serving," the report said. 

The report also noted the downstream effects of intimidation. For example, about 20 percent of state officeholders and 40 percent of local officeholders acknowledged they were less willing to work on controversial topics because of fear. 

Fifty-three percent of state legislators believed that abuse had deterred their colleagues from taking on controversial topics. About 23 percent of state legislators in the report said they were less likely to hold events in public spaces, limiting crucial public access to their representation. 

Las Cruces City Councilor Johana Bencomo, chairing the March 4 Las Cruces City Council meeting as mayor pro tem, discusses affordable housing measures.
Las Cruces City Councilor Johana Bencomo, chairing the March 4 Las Cruces City Council meeting as mayor pro tem, discusses affordable housing …
'And I will kill you' 

This section discusses suicide. Help is available by calling 988 for the 24-hour Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

Bencomo was targeted by a death threat on March 16. She's been a Las Cruces city councilor since 2017 and told the Bulletin she's experienced other forms of harassment before. But this experience was a benchmark. 

Bencomo was out of town visiting family when police believe an El Paso man with Las Cruces ties left a death threat via her city hall phone. The voicemail automatically forwarded to her cell phone. 

The man gave his name and number. He told Bencomo to "clean up her side of the street," deployed homophobic slurs, and mentioned a person police said had a protective order against him. 

"When you hear it, you can sort of tell he is in distress," she said. 

He then told Bencomo to kill herself. If she didn't, he said, "And I will kill you," before ending the voicemail.   

Bencomo said the message felt off but didn't immediately sink in. When she shared it with confidants, they told her she needed to go to the police. 

Bencomo has advocated for poor and marginalized groups in Las Cruces as a councilor and in her career as a community organizer. This work has earned her the ire of some who oppose her approach to affecting change, her values and her beliefs about what government should do. The death threat rattled those values. 

"I definitely started feeling myself doubt my whole approach," Bencomo said. 

Support from city leadership helped soften the blow, she said. 

"I talked to other women in my circle of work who didn't feel like law enforcement believed them," Bencomo said. "And that just has not been my experience at all. Chief (Jeremy) Story took it very seriously." 

Bencomo said that Story and the detective assigned to the case, Peirce Wilber, reassured her with the investigation and advocacy.   

"I'll never forget what chief said: 'When our elected officials don't feel safe, the whole system falls apart,'" she recalled. 

The voicemail led to a misdemeanor charge against the man. That case is pending.  

'They've got eyes on me at all times' 

While Bencomo's experience was acute, another councilor's experience has been a protracted ordeal. 

Becki Graham, a councilor since 2021, told the Bulletin she's had a politically motivated stalker for three years. This wasn’t a surprise, as she was warned about them after she was elected. 

"I would say that this person is very committed to making sure that I know they are watching me; they've got eyes on me at all times," Graham said. "Not just in the typical government watchdog way, but I've received messages that let me know just small things alluding to details of my house, making sure that they know where I live." 

At times, Graham has seen the person driving by her house. On other occasions, the person sat near Graham's driveway and drove away upon discovery. 

Graham and Bencomo said they've taken steps to protect themselves and their families. But their experiences have also forced them to choose between yielding to intimidation and persistence. 

"I've been doing so much internal wrestling the last few days that now I'm angry about it," Bencomo said. "You will not intimidate me. I will keep doing the work that I have chosen to do." 

The experience has caused Bencomo to reevaluate her values. And she comes out with stronger beliefs. 

"I'm now a victim, and I've definitely been (asking) do I believe justice is him being incarcerated? No, I don't," she said. "Do I believe nothing should happen? I also don't." 

For Graham, the experience sparked questions about the long-term effects on democracy. 

"Getting death threats, people are following me home, it's just a huge loss in knowledge and dedication and experience in the whole democratic process," Graham said. "This is something with local relevance. And whether you like your current elected official or whether you don't, it's something that you should be concerned about if it's going to fundamentally affect the quality of government." 

Solomon Peña allegedly sent this selfie next to accused gunman José Trujillo to another conspirator in a plot to shoot at the homes of state legislators and county commissioners in Albuquerque in December 2022 and January 2023.
Solomon Peña allegedly sent this selfie next to accused gunman José Trujillo to another conspirator in a plot to shoot at the homes of state …
Attacking democracy  

The most well-known example of political violence against elected officials occurred up north. 

Solomon Peña, 40, ran for an Albuquerque-area seat in the New Mexico House of Representatives during the November 2022 midterm elections. After his defeat, police said Peña organized four shootings at the homes of two Bernalillo County Commissioners and two state legislators. 

Police also believe that Peña wanted the election he'd lost overturned. He believed it had been rigged, ensuring his loss. In reality, Peña suffered defeat to Bernalillo County Democrat Miguel Garcia by more than 3,500 votes.

Peña's alleged violence struck a chord across the state, but it was felt uniquely by Doña Ana County Clerk Amanda López Askin. Before his arrest, Peña called for López Askin to be hanged on a fringe social media site. 

"This man is alleged to have done this to these elected officials that he did not care for or you felt strongly about. And I just happen to live way south," López Askin said. 

López Askin said she's been fielding intimidation against her and her office for six years. She became clerk in 2018, in one of the more memorable elections in southern New Mexico’s history.  

That year, Republican Yvette Herrell narrowly lost to Democrat Xochitl Torres Small. A Democrat hadn't held the seat in a generation. For New Mexico Democrats, the win was monumental. But the unusual flip, combined with a delayed result due to a historic number of absentee ballots, fed unsubstantiated rumors of something more sinister. 

"That caused the whole storm of misinformation and malinformation. And unfortunately, I continue to combat that specific election to this day," López Askin said. 

Like other elected officials mentioned in the Brennan Center report, López Askin stepped away from social media as harassment online intensified. They poked fun at her appearance and called her names. It didn't matter how she responded or what she did, López Askin said. The accusations against her often had no basis in reality. They were just things made up, put online and regurgitated by a mindless algorithm. 

The posters crossed a line, she said, when they used photos of her family and children to create memes at her expense. 

"That was a very, very tough professional time for me. It was really the point where I'd had to decide whether I was going to do this or not. And, obviously, I decided to," López Askin said. "But I wouldn't put my worst enemy in that position. It was really, really difficult." 

López Askin was, as she put it, new to elected office at the time. While she had held a position on the New Mexico State University Board of Regents as a student, the county clerk was something new. As part of that, she dove deeper into the history of elections and the election code. 

The deeper she researched that history, the more righteous she felt about her office's work regarding elections, aiming to impart this message and mission through her work. 

"We cannot stop. They say there are no tears in baseball, but there is no relaxation in elections," she said. 

District Attorney under threat  

For Doña Ana County District Attorney Gerald Byers, the question of threats and violence against political officials is a question of justice. 

Byers was also the victim of a death threat. In 2023, an Ohio man left a racist voicemail calling for him to be killed. According to the FBI, the Ohio man believed that he had every right to threaten Byers’ life. That case also led to minor charges and remains pending. 

Byers said local law enforcement sprung into action when the threats were delivered. He received police surveillance at his work and at home, for both him and his family. 

"It is not common, it's not usual, and it is not considered part and parcel of being an elected official," he said. 

But Byers, who also served in the U.S. Navy, said the experience has fortified his belief about public service. 

"If I was going to quit just because somebody threatened my life, just because I'm an elected district attorney, then I would have had ample opportunity to quit for the last 26 years when I've been a prosecutor," Byers said. "You don't let that deter you." 

In some ways, Byers said the experience allowed him to step into the shoes of the crime victims who come through the prosecutor's office. It provides a point of empathy, he said. But Byers also said he thinks the legislature play a role in protecting public officials and public servants. 

"I believe that it's important for the stability of our society and the state of New Mexico, for this matter to be brought before the legislature so that laws can be created that reflect the necessity of public safety for these times. The fact that so many public officials have been placed under threat speaks to that, and it speaks volumes," he said. 

death threat, Elected officials, mental health