Suspicious incidents keep cropping up along the Arizona-Mexico border.
With hundreds of thousands of migrants coming through the desert and ranchlands of southern Arizona every year, it is impossible to know how many crimes are committed against them.
In a 2001 report by the nonpartisan U.S. General Accounting Office, the sheriff of Santa Cruz County is unusually candid about some of the reasons why: "Crimes against illegal aliens have increased because the migrants are forced" — by U.S. border policy — "to attempt entry through remote areas outside town, where criminal activity is less likely to be detected and more difficult to respond to."
The result? "Assailants are rarely captured, crime scenes ... are rarely located, and victims disappear." Bodies rot fast in the desert, and bones are quickly scattered.
Compounding the problem, migrants who survive have every incentive to keep quiet about whatever they've suffered. If they complain about human rights abuses, they know they'll be incarcerated in the U.S. while the case is looked into.
"Most folks who cross the border don't know they have rights in the first place," says the Rev. Mark Adams, whose Healing Our Borders group interviews illegal migrants who are being returned to Mexico by the U.S. Border Patrol. And even if the migrants are aware of their rights, they tend to cover up abuses. "They'll say, 'I tripped and fell,' or, 'I walked into a fence post,'" Adams says. "All they want to do is get back, so they can try to come over again."
Of course, there's no incentive for vigilantes to 'fess up, either. All of which makes it mighty easy for the law to throw up its collective hands. The Border Patrol does "extensive interviews" any time a civil-rights violation is alleged, says spokesperson Ryan Scudder, but "we only know what we're told. All you can know is what people say."
In the rare instances where migrants do report abuses, what people say is almost always contradictory. Take March 27, 2000, when Cochise County rancher Daniel Morrison spotted nine migrants moving through a ditch along Highway 80. After ordering them to stop, Morrison fired six or seven shots, which the migrants "emphatically" told Mexican officials were aimed at them. Morrison said he fired his gun merely as a warning.
When the migrants told a sheriff's deputy they didn't want to press charges because they wanted to return to Mexico, the investigation apparently ended.
When in doubt, investigators can pin the blame on coyotes, smugglers of drugs and migrants from Mexico. Coyotes have been blamed, most recently, for the murders of two migrants outside of Tucson. It's become a running joke along the border, says Tucson attorney and activist Isabel Garcia. "No matter what they find," she says, "it'll be the coyotes' fault."
Following is a small sampling of reports of questionable apprehensions of migrants by private citizens in southern Arizona. Descriptions of these incidents are based on Mexican government documents and accounts in the Arizona Daily Star and Douglas Dispatch newspapers. No charges have been filed in any of these incidents, and none of these allegations have been adjudicated in court.
APRIL 19, 1999 -- Migrant Ramona Magana became separated from a group of border-crossers and approached a Hereford ranch owned by Ralph Berdyc, hoping to find food and water. As she drew near the house, she heard a man yelling and dogs barking. After she tried to explain her situation, Berdyc went back into his ranch house and, as Magana fled, fired three shots with a semiautomatic rifle. Berdyc told Border Patrol agents they were warning shots.
NOVEMBER 20, 1999 -- Brandishing rifles, brothers Roger and Donald Barnett took seven illegal aliens into custody on their property, then transported them in their pickup truck to the Douglas Border Patrol station. The migrants said they felt threatened because the Barnetts were pointing their guns at them.
MARCH 18, 2000 -- A remote Border Patrol cameraman watched as Douglas rancher Richard Puzzi pointed a rifle at six migrants and detained them in his yard. The migrants told Mexican officials they felt threatened because Puzzi kept his rifle pointed at them, sometimes shoving it in their faces, until they were picked up by Border Patrol agents. After Puzzi told a Cochise County sheriff's deputy he did not point his rifle at the migrants, the deputy decided not to file a criminal report.
APRIL 5, 2000 -- A group of between 12 and 15 migrants was allegedly detained and held at gunpoint by Andreas Mueller, a professional dog trainer who had also fired a warning shot in the direction of 31 border-crossers in February 2000. One of the migrants, Bencomo Arreola, said Mueller threatened to shoot him. One of Mueller's German shepherds bit another man, who was taken to a hospital and treated for puncture wounds.
MAY 3, 2000 -- Roger and Donald Barnett, accompanied by two unidentified women and a television news crew, used their dogs to apprehend nine migrants who were resting in the brush on the Barnetts' ranch. The migrants alleged that Roger Barnett, wearing a holstered pistol, sicced the dogs on the migrants, and Donald Barnett ordered them to sit on the ground and wait for Border Patrol pickup.
MARCH 21, 2001 -- Near the San Pedro River, nine migrants were crossing a ranch when an unnamed person emerged from a house, carrying a rifle and accompanied by a dog. When the man opened fire, six of the migrants ran and leaped over a fence, hiding in nearby bushes. The other three migrants, illuminated by the man's flashlight beam, threw themselves to the ground and felt at least three bullets pass over their heads. When the rancher got into his truck to look for the migrants, all nine fled, hearing more shots.
SEPTEMBER 20, 2002 -- As they waited alongside Interstate 90 for a scheduled pickup, three migrants were allegedly apprehended by Henry Harvey, a volunteer "Hawkeye" for American Border Patrol. The migrants said Harvey pulled his SUV onto the side of the interstate and got out wearing a holstered side-arm pistol with a couple of extra clips, carrying a can of mace. They said he asked them if they had papers, then ordered them to keep still and stay down until an undercover Border Patrol agent came to pick them up.
OCTOBER 9, 2002 -- A Mexican national was walking along the shoulder of Highway 92, near Sierra Vista, when a man driving a pick-up pulled over and asked the migrant if he was "illegal." When the migrant answered affirmatively, the man pulled out a handgun and pointed it at him. Ordering the migrant to lie on the ground, the man called Border Patrol agents, who came and took custody of the migrant.
JANUARY 19, 2003 -- Rodrigo Quiroz Acosta, a migrant from Navajoa, Sonora, was approaching Highway 80 when a truck pulled over. A tall man dressed like a rancher got out of the vehicle and began to punch and kick Quiroz, who said he was also hit in the head with a flashlight and bitten by one of the man's dogs. After a woman emerged from the truck and intervened to stop the beating, Quiroz jumped a nearby barbed-wire fence but was caught by the man's dogs and soon arrested by Border Patrol agents.