December 19, 2003

International Human Rights Day Activists Oppose Operation Gatekeeper

By Raymond R. Beltrán

Last Wednesday, December 10, while celebrating a 55-year-old tradition, marked by the world’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, activists across the world commemorated the day known as International Human Rights Day, addressing issues such as women’s right to choose, California prisoner’s rights, and human trafficking in Southeast Europe. Here in San Diego, human rights groups began a three day fast to bring about a sense of awareness behind immigration issues and to oppose the U.S. Border Patrol’s Operation Gatekeeper.

While demonstrators were approaching the last four hours of the three day fast at San Ysidro’s U.S. / Mexico border last Saturday, a twenty-to-thirty person cavalry was closing in from Chicano Park, flanking South Bay neighborhoods, like Barrio Logan, National City, Chula Vista, and San Ysidro, with Mexican flags waving, their voices chanting, and their feet charging the fifteen mile march.

Members of the Raza Rights Coalition, Unión del Barrio, and the American Friends Service Committee marched from Chicano Park to the U.S. / Mexico Border last Saturday. Photo by Raymond R. Beltrán

“[Fasting]’s a way of doing a humble sacrifice for a designated amount of time,” says Pedro Ríos, faster and Project Coordinator for the American Friends Service Com-mittee’s (AFSC) U.S. / Mexico Border Program. “It’s a way to get people, who are walking by, to recognize that the number of people that have died in consequence of Operation Gatekeeper is nearing 3,000, and that is something that’s unfortunately become normal life in the passed nine years.”

Operation Gatekeeper is the present Border Patrol operative that was initiated in 1994 by the State of California in order to fortify the international border across the southwestern region of the United States. According to the U.S. Border Patrol’s statistics, into its fourth year (1998), there had been a total of 2,264 agents, which was an increase of 140% to the number of agents four years prior. There has been the construction of 42.4 miles of primary fencing and 4.8 miles of multi-layer fencing. There are now 6 miles of permanent high-intensity lighting, 100 portable lighting platforms, infrared scopes, and underground sensors. 1,765 vehicles, 10 helicopters, and 1,350 computers have been supplied to the Border Patrol. In 2002, the Immigration Naturalization Services (INS) had requested that President George W. Bush include into his Fiscal Year 2003 Budget an allocated $6.3 billion, which would, this year, have included funds for more Border Patrol agents, additional immigration inspectors, new border patrol helicopters, entry-exit identification systems, and a Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF).

“It stops the migrant flows from urban areas into treacherous terrain,” says Ríos. According to participating human rights organizations’ statistics, Operation Gatekeeper, and the authority it grants its agents, is the direct cause of 2,600 migrant deaths since its implementation in 1994. Causes of death are related to hypothermia, dehydration, drowning, shootings, and reckless driving. The AFSC accepts and records written complaints, available on their website, that range from 80 to 90 mile-per-hour high speed chases in pursuit of misdemeanor crimes, raiding homes without a search warrant, having guns drawn without cause, instigating physical confrontation, and verbal abuse, to working in collaboration with school and public police.

They also hold U.S. Border Patrol agents responsible for the deaths of Dario Miranda Venezuela, Martin Garcia Martinez, Ezeqiel Hernandez, and Victor Mandujano. Murder stories they’ve documented include an incident where an unidentified U.S. Border Patrol agent shot and killed a young migrant worker, Robert Torres, in 2000. According to their reports, Torres was trying to jump back over the fence into Mexico from Imperial Beach. Then, deciding to surrender to officials unarmed, Torres was shot and killed by a Border Patrol agent.

Besides holding public demonstrations, the human rights groups have suggested alternative Border Patrol procedures that would begin to create a medium platform in which both government agencies and humanitarian organizations can come to mutual accords. Their suggestions include a closer look into the psychoanalysis of prospective employees, culture sensitivity training, and closer supervision of field personnel, to name only a few.

Fasters: Stephanie Romero, Viridiana Farias, Patricia Marin, Maria Serrano, Samuel Bernardino, and Pedro Ríos. Photo by the RRC

“They’ve never responded to any of the things we’ve actually asked of them,” said Judy de los Santos, lead organizer of the demonstration and member of the Raza Rights Coalition (RRC). “We want them to be accountable to what’s been going on, and there hasn’t been any response at all.”

While leafleting information out to South Bay onlookers and U.S. citizens crossing into Mexico, AFSC, RRC, and Unión del Barrio members were also raising awareness about Governor Arnold Schwarzennegger’s repeal of Senate Bill 60 (which would have aloud immigrants the right to driver’s licenses) as well as his affiliation with former Governor Pete Wilson (initiator of Proposition 187), and the president’s “War on Terrorism,” which imposes the USA Patriot Act on U.S. citizens and is often said to violate privacy rights. According to the RRC, this is only the beginning of what the Mexican communities will be subject to while Schwarzennegger serves his three-year term. They also say they are expecting to prepare for an opposition to possible initiatives congruent to 1994’s Proposition 187, which denies humane services to undocumented people, and Proposition 209, which reverses Affirmative Action. They suspect that it will most likely be in the name of “anti-terrorism.”

“You know, they can call people ‘terrorists,’ but they themselves need to look at what terrorism is and the things that they’ve done to other countries,” says de los Santos, panting as she approaches her tenth mile on Broadway Avenue in Chula Vista. “They put on this act of innocence and oppress other people, and it’s something they need to take a look at themselves. The Mexicans have done nothing … they come over here to try and make [their lives] better.”

Border Patrol Chief William Veal has not responded to requests for an interview.

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