June 16, 2000
By Rodolfo F. Acuña
We only remember history, like the tree that falls in the forest, when we hear or read about it. Unfortunately, when we hear about the fallen tree, it is often too late to save it. In a matter of speaking, This is what is happening in southern Arizona where armed vigilante ranchers are brutalizing Mexican migrant workers, while the US Border Patrol is abetting the ranchers' terrorist acts.
The public reaction to these events has been mixed. The number shootings and murders of Mexican migrants has surprised some of those who first learn about them. The tale of ranchers on horseback hunting Mexicans has outraged others. While stories of Mexican migrants dying of thirst in the Arizona desert has moved others to tears. However, for the most part, the majority does not appear to hear about the atrocities, and when they do they seem immune to any feeling of outrage. What is happening in southern Arizona is treated as an aberration rather than the truth, that the violence is part of American culture, and its disregard for the "other."
The central figure in this drama of vigilante ranchers is the wanna be ranger, Roger Barnett, who has boasted that he has made thousands of arrests of Mexican migrants on "his ranch." Ironically, most of "his" ranches are lands leased from Arizona at bargain sale prices. Emboldened by official inaction, Barnett and his followers, although they deny it, have sent out a racist "flyer" inviting white supremacist groups to come to their ranches to help them "hunt" Mexican "aliens." This Call has attracted kooks such as Studio City, California, resident Glenn Spencer of "American Patrol" and Barbara Coe, also of California.
The actions of the ranchers has gone beyond the bravado stage. A young Mexican migrant worker named Miguel Palafox was shot, after which he struggled back to Mexico for treatment. Palafox accused Arizona cowboys on horseback of shooting him, a fact that the Border Patrol and others deny and for which they blame Mexican bandits.
Seeking explanations for what they consider a recent outbreak of violence, human rights activists wonder why the press and people of conscience are not doing anything about the human rights violations. Why isn't there anyone marching to save the trees? They posit that the cause of the violence is the Border Patrol's increased militarization of the border during the 1980s and 1990s. Successful operations and sweeps in El Paso and San Diego have forced undocumented workers to brave the hazardous desert of southern Arizona. Moreover, pressure from right wing extremist groups, according to these critics, has helped nurture racist nativism of Americans, and politicians have used immigration as a wedge issue. This in turn has encouraged federal authorities to adopt a military solution of preventing "dangerous people"criminal aliens from outer space from crossing the US-Mexico border. The militarization, according to this logic, has made the Border Patrol leaner and meaner, with the external threat posed by terrorists and drug traffickers justifying their tactics.
While much of this is true, it is too pat, mechanically constructed to fit the polemics of globalization. The truth is that the tree, or here, the trees have fallen but we just have not heard them. The brutality on the border separating Arizona and Sonora is nothing new. Southern Arizona is just not part of our historical memory.
The reasons for this historical lapse are complex but at the same time simple: As one New York reporter told Professor Guadalupe Castillo of Pima College, "The border is a Third World country, and people just don't give a damn." The situation on the border is much like that in the movie "Chinatown." No one cares what happens in Chinatown. Just like few people outside the barrios care about violence in the hood. Further complicating things is that we write Chicano history from the perspective of two poles, one centered in Texas and the other in California. For the most part, we forget the space between poles.
Furthermore, acts of violence are not to southern Arizona. They are a phenomenon of the past two decades. They are historical. History tells us that the United States acquired southern Arizona in 1853 at gun point when US minister James Gadsden told Mexico, sell us southern Arizona for $10 million or we'll take it. As a consequence of the occupation, the colonizers racialized labor, and the border became a point of conflict, with Euroamericans attempting to extend its border south to include the neighboring Mexican state of Sonora.
Acts of violence were comon. In 1859, a posse hunted down a runaway Mexican servant for N.B. Appel, a Tubac merchant, and administered him fifteen lashes in public. That same year, they hunted and whipped seven Mexican peons from the Riverton Ranch. They cut their hair so close that they shaved off half their scalps.
Tensions got so bad in the territory during the 1870s that the Sonoran government refused to extradite alleged lawbreakers to Arizona. Industrialization of Arizona during the last two decades of the 19th century worsened relations between the two peoples. Mexican formed mutualistas, mutual aid societies, to protect their interests.
White miners excluded Mexican miners from many mining camps, as the mine owners institutionalized a double wage system. In the first part of the century, even the militant Western Federation of Miners excluded Mexicans. Violence was rampant, and nativist tried to exclude Mexican labor from Arizona mines by passing anti-immigrant legislation. In 1917, they deported Mexican miners from Jerome and Bisbee. In Bisbee, local authorities rounded up 1200 strikers, and threw them in bull pens, and then loaded them onto railroad cars and shipped and dumped them in the middle of the New Mexican desert in the heat of summer. Most of these miners were Mexican.
As late as World War II, segregation existed in Arizona. It was not until the war that Mexicans could become apprentices and skilled workers in the Southern Pacific. They segregated Mexicans housing. They also segregated in the mines by work categories. Even so, the border remained porous. The mines and agriculture needed Mexican labor. The Border Patrol was founded in 1924; its purpose was to prevent the entry of unauthorized persons and materials into U.S. territory. This mission, however, began to change with the Cold War and official concerns shifted toward the protection the national territory from the allegedly foreign threats of terrorism and drugs. This shift did not occur recently as commonly believed. It began in the 1950s during the Eisenhower administration when federal authorities increasingly turned toward military solutions a way to control the influx of "dangerous" peoples into the United States.
Dwight Eisenhower set a template for dealing with those dangerous people. His Attorney General Herbert Brownell deployed propaganda as a strategy. His message was that America's frontier with Mexico was out of control. We were being overrun by dangerous people. Brownell allegedly hinted to newspaper publishers that the best way to seal the border was to shoot down a couple of "wetbacks," supposedly to scare the others away. Through a campaign of fear and gross violation of human rights in the guise of "Operation Wetback" the US Border Patrol supposedly halted "illegal immigration" across the entire 2,000-mile US-Mexico frontier.
The man in charge of Operation Wetback was Eisenhower's former classmate at West Point, retired Gen. Joseph Swing. Ever since Swing INS commissioners have run the Border Patrol as a semi military group. The name "Operation Wetback" betrays military jargon. Swing reorganized the command structure, got new equipment, and fitted them out in smart, forest-green uniforms. He approved the use of a new tactic, the Mobile Task Force, to clampdown on so-called illegal entrants in the worst problem areas. Swing carefully orchestrated press coverage of Operation Wetback as if he were launching a military campaign. Selective secrecy about the number of agents in the task force and their tactics made the Border Patrol seem even bigger and more menacing than they really were.
(That is the message it wanted to send: it was big and bad). Swing's campaign heightened anti-US feelings between Mexicans, and it reinforced a dehumanizing, military mentality to the Border Patrol.
Swing's Cold War tactics also set into motion the pretext for future growth of the Border Patrol. Following the example of the military that created the Soviet threat, the Immigration and Naturalization Service perpetuated the myth of "dangerous" people poised on the border. The build-up began in the late 1960s whenin reaction to the era's social upheaval, particularly the violent inner-city riots, politicians increasingly turned to law-and-order rhetoric and thinly veiled racial scapegoating for votes. This political hype spawned the drug war"the Trojan horse for deeper federal involvement in policing"and millions of dollars poured out from Washington to modernize, professionalize, and militarize local law enforcement over the next decade.
During the 1970s, the INS manufactured statistics, giving the sense that all of Mexico was poised at the border ready to invade the US. The INS used words such as invasion, and substituted the name illegal alien for wetback, a term that had become politically incorrect, but more important racist. The new term was even more insidious. The euphemisms "illegal" really meant criminals, "aliens" meant creatures from outer space, emoting a sense of inhuman, or at the very least "a dangerous people."
As a result, tensions mounted in Arizona. Not surprisingly, the Hanigan case occurred in this manufacture hysteria. In August 1976 Patrick Hanigan, his brother, Thomas, and their father, George, captured Manuel Garcia Loya, Eleazar Ruelas Zavala, and Bernabe Herrera Mata, who crossed their ranch, fronting the Mexican border west of Douglas, Ariz. They tortured them, using hot pokers, cigarettes, knives and fired a shotgun filled with bird shot at them. The ordeal lasted several hours before sending them naked and bleeding back across the border.
The Mexicans, undocumented workers, had entered the country in the hope of finding farm work. The Hanigans besides being ranchers owned Dairy Queen outlets in Bisbee, Ariz. An all white jury acquitted Patrick and Thomas Hanigan in a state court in 1977 of kidnaping, assault and robbery. George Hanigan had died shortly before the state trial. Upon hearing the verdict, Mexican Consul Raul Avelyera said it "declared open season on illegal aliens."
This should have ended the matter. However, Chicano organizations, led by a group of young activists and law students, pressured the Carter Administration to bring about justice. Activists in Douglas organized demonstrations and a week-long boycott of white-owned businesses on the U.S. side of the border. A national coalition of Mexican American groups petitioned the Justice Department for a civil rights probe, accusing the Carter administration of being insensitive to their civil liberties. Because of the pressure, the Justice Department announced a new probe of the Hanigan incident.
Chicano leaders stressed there had been at least fifteen killings and more than 150 incidents of alleged brutality against Mexican Americans, mainly by law-enforcement officials, during the last three years. In Arizona alone, Border Patrol agents had shot and wounded three undocumented aliens during the eighteen months before 1977.
The Federal court charged the Hanigans with violating the Hobbs Act, a law that governs interstate commerce. The judge declared a mistrial in the first federal trial in 1980 when a jury failed to reach a verdict. A retrial took place in February 1981, and Patrick Hanigan, convicted of obstructing interstate commerce by torturing and robbing three illegal aliens nearly five years before, was sentenced to three years in prison. A jury acquitted Thomas Hanigan. The courts upheld the conviction on appeal. (Incidentally, shortly after the trial, Thomas Hanigan, was arrested for possession with intent to distribute 574 pounds of marijuana.)
In 1981 an all-white jury in Arizona state court found a former rancher, W.M. Burris Jr., 28, guilty of unlawful imprisonment and aggravated assault of a Mexican farm worker. It did not find him guilty of the more serious charge of unlawful imprisonment and kidnaping. Burris had used a deadly weapon, which should have carried a mandatory five-year prison sentence. The rancher, suspecting 20-year-old Manuel Hernandez Garcia, an undocumented worker from the state of Vera Cruz, of stealing chained his employee around the neck so he would not leave the ranch.
During the 1980s few heard the falling of the trees outside southern Arizona. Mexico's Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported 117 cases of human rights abuses by US officials against migrants from 1988 to 1990, including fourteen deaths. During the 1980s, Border Patrol agents shot dozens of people, killing eleven and permanently disabling ten.
To take the focus away from state violence, and to break the growing opposition to the militarization of the border, the Reagan Justice Department in the mid-1980s, prosecuted the religious sanctuary movement. This movement specialized, according to authorities, in the smuggling Central Americans into the United States. The sanctuary movement began in 1980 as thousands of Salvadorans during the growing civil unrest in their country sought refuge in the United States. The federal government charged eleven religious and lay activists in the sanctuary movement. Uncover agents infiltrated immigrant rights groups. One center was Tucson.
The investigation led to the indictment in January 16, 1985 of sanctuary movement volunteers on charges that included criminal conspiracy to smuggle, harbor and transport illegal aliens. They supposedly based the so-called "transporters and smugglers" in Arizona, and the "Nogales connection" that housed immigrants in Nogales, Mexico, and directed them across the border. Eventually, some defendants pled to lesser charges. They acquitted others. Significant was the expenditure of time and effort in prosecuting these so-called "dangerous people."
Another expression of the Reagan years, was the creation of elite Border Patrol squads known as Border Patrol Tactical Teams (BORTACS), which began receiving special paramilitary training in the mid-1980s. By 1989 Congress had authorized 5,000 federal troops for border duty. They built fences and walls and Border Patrol budget zoomed. Combat-ready troops were committed, but removed after public outrage over the shooting of an unarmed Mexican national. The military, however, continued to provide aid to immigration authorities. Some 600 U.S. Marines and army troops, built and upgraded helicopter pads and roads. They deployed strategies of counterinsurgency used by the U.S. military in Southeast Asia in the 1960s. Their objective was to establish and maintain social control over targeted civilian groups.
During this period, Arizona not only had the ranchers and the coyotes to contend with but the U.S. Border Patrol, which critics characterized as a rogue agency. By all accounts, the most renegade branch was based along the northern expanses of the Sonoran desert. There numerous cases were reported of agents involved in smuggling drugs while on duty and murder and assaults. For instance, Armando C. Garcia, Tucson's former chief detention officer, was placed on three years probation in late 1991 after admitting that he stole money from immigrants in the Border Patrol lockup. The agency drew scrutiny from the FBI, Justice Department internal affairs investigators, federal prosecutors and local law enforcement.
During this period, U.S. authorities investigated possible civil rights violations, summoning eleven agents to a police lineup.
Some agents profited from the war on drugs. Douglas Agent Ronald Michael Backues ferried marijuana in his pale green service Bronco. He spent the proceeds on among other things on steroids for himself and breast implants for his wife. Former Agent Gary Patrick Callahan trafficked cocaine stolen from smugglers. The courts convicted Veteran Border Patrol Investigator Willie Garcia for lying in court about an accused heroin smuggler a longtime informant with whom Garcia had once had an intimate relationship. They fired Thomas A. Watson, a five-year Nogales veteran, for complicity in the cover-up of a fellow agent's fatal shooting of a suspected trafficker. The courts acquitted Agent Michael Andrew Elmer of murdering an unarmed suspected drug scout. A civil suit brought by relatives of the dead man, Dario Miranda,Valenzuela, showed that Elmer shot him twice in the back as he ran away.
The fire this time came when Arizona ranchers began to detain undocumented workers crossing "their" land. Mexican officials protested the detentions by ranchers near the border town of Douglas, Ariz. Ranchers with firearms rounded up groups of migrants on their land and delivered them to federal law enforcement officials. Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner has encouraged the ranchers by saying they "have legitimate concerns about the trespassers on their property." While she condemned what she called "vigilantes," Meissner said there was no evidence to support reports by Mexican media that ranchers had shot at migrants in recent weeks.
Secretary Madeleine Albright says U.S. authorities would strengthen efforts to monitor and, if warranted, prosecute the ranchers. Still, she says that the ranchers had the right to evict trespassers from their land, saying that the problem lies too with Mexican criminal organizations that make the smuggling of illegal immigrants across the Mexico-U.S. border big business, conveniently shifting the focus to the "dangerous people"the drug traffickers and the coyotes.
As mentioned an anonymous leaflet invited winter vacationers to park their recreational vehicles on border ranches to help property owners guard against the migrants. Emboldened by the inaction of local, state and federal officials, Roger Barnett show boated for the press, calling this an "extremely sensitive and dangerous situation," an "overwhelming invasion of thousands upon thousands of illegal aliens and drug traffickers from Mexico into Cochise County." He called for the "drastic need for action in the interests of national security, citizen safety and protection of wildlife resources and habitat." Barnett and his brother, Don, have allegedly detained up to 170 migrants in a day. Understandably, this has brought a reaction from Mexicans. In June a retired oil worker in northern Mexico offered a $10,000 bounty for anyone who shot a US border patrol agent.
Meanwhile, people are dying trying to cross the Sonoran Desert to get a piece of what we daily advertise on their TV's. After walking three days in the searing desert with her 18-month-old daughter on her hip, Yolanda Gonzalez, 19, from Oaxaca gave the last of her water to her baby and died during the first days of June. Four Mexicans perished that week. From October to June of this year, eighteen people have died of exposure and dehydration in the Sonoran Desert. Expanded Border Patrol enforcement in California and Texas has funneling thousands through the Arizona desert.
Border Patrol policy is however not without a fault for these deaths. According to Guadalupe Castillo, a longtime Tucson activist, the stepped-up enforcement is killing border crossers: "They are being pushed into harsher terrain." Meanwhile, US officials write off these deaths as "unfortunate incidents."
Despite this official callous, community groups such as the Tucson-based Coalition for Human Rights continue to struggle, very much alone on the Arizona border. Few Chicano or Latino organizations have so far offered help, other than to express outrage via the internet, which hopefully will at least allow many of us to know that the trees are falling, even if we don't do anything about it.
I visited Tucson, traveling to Bisbee and Douglas on June 2 and 3, 2000. Although I was skeptical that anyone would care about what happens in that Third World, I drew inspiration from that so many activists whom I met there three decades ago were still struggling. Chicanos have maintained multiracial coalitions over the years, and activists involved in the Hanigan case such as Guadalupe Castillo, Raquel Rubio Goldsmith, and attorneys Jesus Romo and Isabel Garcia are still fighting injustice. I also found that not all the ranchers agreed with Barnett and his ilk.
Still, I was disturbed with some of the change: None of the Chicano academics who you would expect to be defending the human rights of the undocumented workers seemed to be involved and there was not a critical mass of students present at the vigils. I saw more brown faces in those green uniforms of the Border Patrol and among the government functionaries. The head of the Border Patrol is a Tejano and the U.S. Attorney, who claimed that he brought the Hanigans to justice, is a Chicano. However, interviewing seemed like deja vu, like interviewing the Los Angeles Police Department on the Ramparts scandaljust a couple of rogue copsa couple of bad applesthe system worksyeah!
(Acuña is a professor of Chicana/o Studies, California State University, Northridge. His books included "Anything But Mexican: Chicanos in Contemporary Los Angeles" (Verso, 1996); "Sometimes There is No Other Side: Chicanos and the Myth of Equality" (Notre Dame, 1998); Occupied America: A History of Chicanos (Longman, Dec. 1999).)