ESPAÑOLA, N.M. — Chaos erupted Thursday as a gunshot rang out during a protest in northern New Mexico where officials had planned to install a statue of Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate, an event that county officials had already postponed anticipating that tempers would flare.
One man was struck by the gunfire and rushed to the hospital as Rio Arriba County sheriff’s officials took the suspected shooter, 23-year-old Ryan Martinez, into custody. Authorities said they were not currently seeking any other suspects in connection with the shooting.
Oñate has been a controversial figure in New Mexico’s history for generations, with activists targeting the statue and other likenesses of the Spaniard for his oppressive and sometimes brutal treatment of Native Americans during his country’s conquest of what is now the Southwestern United States. Some Hispanics have pointed to the statue as a symbol of their heritage.
Although the county had postponed the installation of the statue the previous day because of public safety concerns, people still turned out.
Protesters arrived Tuesday and pitched tents. They placed offerings on and around the empty pedestal to Oñate: pottery, corn stalks, votive candles, a basket of vegetables. Banners read, “not today Oñate,” and “celebrate resistance not conquistadores.”
The man who would later draw and fire a gun used profanity in arguments with protesters and was told by law enforcement officers to leave. Video captured by onlookers showed the man jumping a short wall and heading toward the crowd as others grabbed him.
One person yelled, “Hey, hey, hey. Let him go!” as he broke free and jumped back over the wall. That’s when he pulled a gun from his waistband and fired a single shot before running off. Screaming ensued.
One person could be heard saying, “Help me! Help me!” and “I can’t breathe.”
The shooting occurred just outside the doors of county offices, which include sheriff offices. More than 20 law enforcement vehicles responded, crowding an Española city roadway that overlooks the Upper Rio Grande Valley.
The wounded man, whose name was not immediately released by authorities, was shot in the upper torso and was being treated at a local hospital, authorities said.
Authorities said a motive for the shooting was unclear.
“Once again, the saddest part about this is we have another incident of gun violence,” county Sheriff Billy Merrifield said at a brief news conference.
Merrifield said he expressed concerns about safety issues to county commissioners about reinstalling the statue in Española outside the county building. He said he was grateful to commissioners who decided against putting up the statue.
He declined to take any questions, saying New Mexico State Police were handling the crime scene and the investigation.
State police didn’t immediately respond to emails or phone calls Thursday night from The Associated Press seeking any information about the condition of the victim or any charges that had been filed or were pending in connection with the shooting. A dispatcher who wasn’t authorized to release any information said additional details were expected to be released later Thursday night or Friday.
Jennifer Marley, of San Ildefonso Pueblo, an organizer for the Native American rights group The Red Nation, said the shooting took place within view of the county sheriff’s department building but without any officers on site to intervene.
“It was awful. This was a peaceful call to action. We were there to celebrate the fact that the statue was not going up,” she said.