Anne Minard
One of Gallup's package stores, surrounded by arroyos that are magnets for alcoholics.

‘Drunk Town USA’: Gallup Working Together to Erase Stigma

Anne Minard

Gallup, New Mexico is a cultural mecca, rich in Hispanic tradition and serving as a border town for the pueblos of Zuni and Laguna and the Navajo Nation. It’s a beautiful place, surrounded by desert, ringed with mountains, and crossed with dry arroyos. Tourists stroll in a charming downtown, buy unparalleled Native arts and crafts, and explore the outdoors.

But Gallup also has a dark side. On any given morning, hungover people stumble out of the arroyos, in twos and threes, and start down the sidewalk toward the package stores to start drinking again. The city has had a terrible time for decades, trying to control substance abuse issues that at best give Gallup a rough reputation, and at worst lead to dozens of deaths each winter, when intoxicated people, primarily Native Americans, wander into the arroyos and freeze.

Now, questions about the future of alcohol treatment options in Gallup are highlighting both the rifts that have developed around the issue, and the abiding passion and hope that keeps people at the table, fighting for solutions.

In late March, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., met with Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye and Vice President Jonathan Nez, to encourage funding for the Na’nízhoozhí Center Incorporated, also known as NCI and often confused, because of an intertwined history, with the Gallup Detoxification Center.

RELATED: Sen. Udall On Health Crisis in Drunk Town, USA

And in a press release about the meeting, the Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President announced its intention to stop funding NCI and instead contract for residential treatment services with Rehoboth McKinley Christian Health Care Services, which operates a full-service Gallup hospital including a residential substance abuse treatment program.

The announcement came as a surprise even to Jonathan Hale, a Navajo Nation Council member who chairs the Health, Education and Human Services Committee.

“This was news to the committee,” he said. “There was no communication out of the President’s office. Our next question was, where is the money going to come from? The general fund? Does this mean cuts to the chapters?”

NCI, which has been celebrated regionally for its incorporation of traditional Navajo medicine and its high success rates, maintains 25 beds in its traditional residential treatment facility, but has managed the city’s detox center only intermittently, due to funding streams and contract arrangements that have been unstable for years.

The Navajo Nation’s public statements leave it unclear whether the Nation will continue to fund detox at all in the notoriously addicted town.

“We’re a public servant,” said Kevin Foley, NCI’s executive director. “NCI was created to provide humane care to the publicly intoxicated, and that’s what our mission is. Even if we don’t do detox, we’ll carry on with traditional residential substance abuse treatment.”

Meanwhile, a resurrected idea from the 1990s – to envelop Gallup’s addicted population in a safety net of services – has gained steam and is capturing the attention of both the state of New Mexico and the Navajo Nation. A wide range of partners include the hospital, NCI, area schools, police, career counselors and a host of representatives from the city, county, state and tribal governments.

Two Steps Back

David Conejo, the CEO at Rehoboth, has been in charge at the hospital twice. The first time was between 1984 and 1994, a decade that highlighted a storied 1989 march, from Gallup to Santa Fe, that he organized alongside then-mayor Eddie Munoz. The point was to highlight an epidemic: during January of that winter, one drunk person a day had either perished in a drunk-driving crash, or frozen to death in the arroyos and desert around Gallup.

David Conejo, CEO at Rehoboth McKinley Christian Health Care Services, describes a comprehensive plan to tackle alcoholism in Gallup. (Anne Minard)

The legislature responded by allocating $400,000 to study the problem. Two solutions emerged: partial restrictions on the sale of packaged liquor – especially the drive-up windows that were once open after the bars closed – and the opening of a detox center.

The detox center still exists today, although it has changed hands and endured financial highs and lows, and now faces an uncertain future.

Meanwhile, Rehoboth has been through its own gauntlet, including a series of administrators that ran the entire hospital into near-financial ruin during Conejo’s 20-year absence. Having spent the two decades between 1994 and 2014 as a hospital administrator in Texas, he was nearing retirement – or so he thought. Old friends from Gallup brought him in to see the state of the hospital. He was saddened by its decline – and he was eventually convinced to return, and help.

One of the people who exerted the most pressure was Genevieve Jackson, Navajo, a McKinley County Commissioner.

“I told her I was getting ready to retire,” Conejo recalls. “And she said, ‘I don’t care.’”

Jackson knew Rehoboth was in trouble, and she insisted on doing something.


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tmsyr11's picture
Submitted by tmsyr11 on
The easy remedy would be to round up the drunkards, put them in a paddy-wagon and drive them to Window Rock, Arizona (Capital of the Navajo Nation Government). And tell the Navajo Officials, here are YOUR people, take care of them> Question to the Navajo Nation Government, what happened to the $550 MILLION dollars in US-funded Tax-Payer Federally-funded funds/appropriations that was signed, seal and delivered that August 2014 Day in Window Rock, AZ?

tmsyr11's picture
Submitted by tmsyr11 on
As long as Gallup is supplying the booze, this is City of Gallup's problem. Navajo people (generally) don't take responsibility for their alcohol, drunk problems considering the Navajo Government bureaucracy in Mental Health/Alcohol Treatment is decayed, dillapidated. Navajo families should not be blaming "others" for their son's, uncle's, father's 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th DWI or alcohol arrest.