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Immigration Backlash: Violence Engulfs Latinos

There's no doubt that the tone of the raging national debate over immigration is growing uglier by the day.

By Brentin Mock

 There's no doubt that the tone of the raging national debate over immigration is growing uglier by the day. Once limited to hard-core white supremacists and a handful of border-state extremists, vicious public denunciations of undocumented brown-skinned immigrants are increasingly common among supposedly mainstream anti-immigration activists, radio hosts and politicians. While their dehumanizing rhetoric typically stops short of openly sanctioning bloodshed, much of it implicitly encourages or even endorses violence by characterizing immigrants from Mexico and Central America as "invaders," "criminal aliens" and "cockroaches."

The results are no less tragic for being predictable: Although hate crime statistics are highly unreliable, numbers that are available strongly suggest a marked upswing in racially motivated violence against all Latinos, regardless of immigration status. According to hate crime statistics published annually by the FBI, anti-Latino hate crimes rose by almost 35% between 2003 and 2006, the latest year for which statistics are available. In California, the state with the largest population of Latinos in the country, the number of reported anti-Latino hate crimes rose 54 percent during the same period following a sharp decline the year before.

What follows is a representative sampling of some of the more egregious examples of physical and psychological violence waged against Latinos over the past two-and-a-half years. The perpetrators range from racist skinheads to rogue Border Patrol agents to otherwise everyday citizens who took it upon themselves to repel an "invader," terrorize a "criminal alien," or exterminate a "cockroach."

JAN. 9, 2004

Dateland, Ariz.

Pedro Corzo, a Cuban-born regional manager for Del Monte Fresh Produce, is gunned down by two Missouri residents — 16-year-old Joshua Aston and his 24-year-old cousin Justin Harrison — who traveled with Aston's younger brother, 15-year-old Nicholas Aston, to a remote section of southern Arizona with the specific intent of randomly killing Mexicans. The brothers shaved their heads before embarking on their odyssey. Corzo was ambushed after he stopped at a roadblock the group constructed from boulders. Joshua Aston, the ringleader, is later tried as an adult and receives two life sentences for the murder. Harrison also is sentenced to life. Charges are eventually dropped against the younger Aston brother.

DEC. 29, 2004

Redlands, Calif.

Two Latino men and a Latina woman are beaten and kicked in the parking lot of a strip club by a "gang of about 10 skinheads," as later reported by the San Bernardino County Sun. The neo-Nazi skinheads yell racial slurs at their victims, prompting the Redlands police chief to declare that hate crime charges will be pursued if and when the perpetrators are caught.

MAY 7, 2005

Maryville, Tenn.

A Mexican grocery store is vandalized by five white men who shatter windows, damage a refrigerator and spray-paint neo-Nazi symbols, causing over $17,000 in damage. Two men — Thomas Lovett and Jacob Reynolds — eventually plead guilty and are each sentenced to six months in prison.

FEB. 17, 2005

Fabens, Texas

Osvaldo Aldrete-Dávila, who is unarmed and fleeing apprehension on foot, is shot at 15 times by two U.S. Border Patrol agents, Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean. One bullet strikes Aldrete-Dávila in the buttocks, severs his urethra and lodges in his groin. Though seriously wounded, he manages to escape into Mexico.

Though the border patrol officers later find that the van driven by Aldrete-Dávila contained a shipment of marijuana, they are unaware of this fact when they open fire. Ramos and Compean attempt to cover up their actions by cleaning up the spent shell casings and failing to report the use of their firearms to their superiors, as required by Border Patrol regulations. The two agents also fail to report the shooting in their incident reports. El Paso Border Patrol Sector Chief Luis Barker later testifies that Compean told Barker that he and Ramos covered up the shooting because they "knew [they] were going to get in trouble."

After the shooting comes to light a month later, Ramos and Compean are arrested and eventually convicted by a federal jury of felony assault charges, discharging a firearm in a crime of violence, civil rights violations, and obstruction of justice. They're sentenced to 11 and 12 years in prison, respectively.

Ramos and Compean will eventually be transformed by a major right-wing misinformation campaign into high-profile martyrs of the anti-immigration movement. The agents, for their part, will remain unrepentant. Ramos tells a Texas Monthly writer in 2007 that Aldrete-Dávila "got what he deserved."

JULY 12, 2005

Patchogue, N.Y.

A 61-year-old Ecuadorean immigrant is badly beaten by three white men as he pushes a shopping cart through the streets collecting cans. Before the attack, the man was asked if he had a green card. "Then they started pummeling him," Suffolk County Hate Crimes Det. Robert Reecks tells reporters. The man, whose name is not made public, suffers a broken eye socket and facial bruises.

JULY 15, 2005

Keansburg, N.J.

Octavio Vivanco is riding his bike to his restaurant job when Joshua Ramgoolam and James Schmidtberg chase him down and punch him in the face. About 15 minutes later, Rosalino Novorrete is attacked by the same duo as he rides his bike to work, this time with a plastic baseball bat. According to Monmouth County Prosecutor Luís Valentín, Vivanco and Novorette were attacked "solely because of their Latino ethnicity." Ramgoolam later pleads guilty to second-degree bias intimidation, third-degree aggravated assault and third-degree weapons possession for unlawful purposes. Schmidtberg is found guilty of the same charges, plus fourth-degree weapons possession. Both are sentenced to five years in state prison.

SEPT. 30, 2005

Tifton, Ga.

Six Mexican immigrants — Mateo Gomez, his son José Luís Tías, Felipe Mauricio Esparza, Guadalupe Sanchez, Armando Perez Martínez and Mauricío Florindo — are murdered, and at least five others are badly injured, when a group of African-American robbers rampage through four trailer parks known for housing immigrant workers. The parks are also known for home invasions; over 20 homes there have been have been invaded in the months prior to the murders.

Three suspects — Jennifer Wilson, Stacy Sims and Jamie Underwood — are arrested and charged with six counts of murder each. Sims and Underwood are also charged with rape and aggravated assault. District Attorney Paul Bowden announces he will seek the death penalty.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation's Vernon Keenan tells CNN that the victims "are easy targets because they do not speak English. They're undocumented workers. They keep cash on their persons [and] in their homes. And they are reluctant to report crimes to law enforcement."

When Tifton's mayor Paul Johnson decides to display the Mexican flag over City Hall out of respect and sympathy for the victims, callers to a local radio station bristle with anger and resentment.

OCT. 16, 2005

Sacramento, Calif.

Six people are injured by three white men who crash a private party with the intent of "beating up Mexicans," according to police. One of the assailants uses brass knuckles after shouting racial epithets and "white pride."

MARCH 30, 2006

North Bergen, N.J.

After a series of pro-immigrant marches and demonstrations bring out hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their supporters in cities across the country, an acerbic neo-Nazi radio host makes an appeal for people to carry out the mass murder of any "illegal aliens" sighted.

"All of you who think there's a peaceful solution to these invaders are wrong. We're going to have to start killing these people," Hal Turner writes on his website. "I advocate using extreme violence against illegal aliens. Clean your guns. Have plenty of ammunition. Find out where the largest gathering of illegal aliens will be near you. Go to the area well in advance, scope out several places to position yourself and then do what has to be done."

APRIL 3, 2006

Tucson, Ariz.

One of the founding members of the Minuteman movement, Laine Lawless, exhorts the leadership of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement (NSM) to launch a campaign of violence and intimidation against Latino immigrants. "Steal the money from any illegal walking into a bank or check cashing place. … Discourage Spanish-speaking children from going to school," Lawless writes in a private E-mail to Mark Martin, "SS commander" of the NSM"s western Ohio chapter. "Be creative. … Create an anonymous propaganda campaign warning that any further illegal immigrants will be shot, maimed or seriously messed-up upon crossing the border."

The goal?

"Make every illegal alien feel the heat of being a person without status."

APRIL 22, 2006

Houston, Texas

David Ritcheson, 16, is attacked by racist skinheads at a house party after supposedly trying to kiss a white girl. David Henry Tuck breaks Ritcheson's jaw, knocking him unconscious, while screaming, "White power!" and calling Ritcheson a "s---" and "w------." Keith Robert Turner joins in, and the two attackers burn Ritcheson with cigarettes, kick him with steel-toed boots, attempt to carve a swastika into his chest, pour bleach on him and finally violently sodomize him with a patio umbrella pole. It takes 30 surgeries before Ritcheson, confined to a wheelchair and wearing a colostomy bag, is able to return to school.

Tuck is later sentenced to life in prison. Turner gets 90 years.

A year after the attack, Ritcheson, who up to that point has not been identified in press accounts by name, goes public and speaks out to the U.S. House of Representative's Judiciary Committee. In wrenching testimony, the boy recalls the horrific experience for lawmakers deliberating over strengthening federal hate crime laws. "With my humiliation and emotional and physical scars came the ambition and strong sense of determination that brought out the natural fighter in me," Ritcheson testifies. "I am glad to tell you today that my best days still lay ahead of me."

Less than three months later, the teenager commits suicide, jumping from a cruise ship into the Gulf of Mexico. Before his death, he assisted the Anti-Defamation League in creating an anti-hate program at his alma mater, Klein Collins High School.

APRIL 28, 2006

Salt Lake City, Utah

A West High School student identified only as Felipe is attacked while walking to school by two white men who he says call him a "stupid w------" and tell him, "Go back to your country, you don't belong here." He survives the jumping with a black eye, cut lip and head swelling, reports the Deseret Morning News. The boy is not a documented citizen, according to his mother, who tells reporters, "The fact that you're an immigrant here doesn't mean they get to do that."

APRIL 29, 2006

East Hampton, N.Y.

Three Latino teenagers are lured into a shed by a neo-Nazi skinhead (also a teenager) and then threatened and terrorized with a chainsaw and a machete. The victims are held for 90 minutes while the skinhead and his friends yell racial slurs, including "White power!" and "Heil Hitler!"

"This is how you run across the border," one of the skinheads shouts as he chases the Latino youths around with the running chainsaw. The skinhead is later charged as a juvenile with reckless endangerment and menacing.

MAY 4, 2006

Southampton Village, N.Y.

Jonathan Cedillo is having lunch near a 7-Eleven when cab driver Robert Rossetti slaps his sandwich from his hand and then begins calling him derogatory racial names. Rosetti then begins ramming into Cedillo, who has American Indian and Mexican ancestry, with his taxi. Cedillo's right knee is injured. "He was cursing at me, telling me I'm an immigrant and to get out of this country," Cedillo tells reporters. Rossetti is later convicted of misdemeanor aggravated harassment.

JUNE 12, 2006

Rocky Point, N.Y.

Two Mexican men fishing at a jetty are asked for their green cards, and then beaten and robbed by four teens — William Foley, Nicholas Provenzano, Daniel Sturgis and Jesse Ward — posing as federal agents. The teens rob money from the victims while accusing them of stealing jobs from U.S. citizens. All four are charged with felony robbery and assault as hate crimes. Sturgis eventually pleads guilty to third-degree assault as a hate crime and second-degree robbery and is sentenced to two years in state prison. Provenzano is convicted of charges related to the attack, but his sentencing is deferred. Foley and Ward are charged as juvenile offenders.

JUNE 15, 2006

Yonkers, N.Y.

Miguel Vega, a native of Peru, is walking down the street where he lives when he's attacked and murdered by five men who also steal his wallet. The killers — Abraham Ghaly, David Bendezu, Alexander Mitchell, Joel Lopez and Rodolfo Ponciano — are charged with murder and robbery. Bendezu, Mitchell, and Lopez have their murder charges upgraded to hate crimes after an investigation finds that they specifically sought a Mexican to rob that night. All five plead guilty and are sentenced to between five and 15 years.

JULY 20, 2006

Dayton, Tenn.

Gilberto Mejía, owner of the Mexican grocery store Carnicería Los Primos, is verbally assaulted by anti-immigration activist June Griffin, who barges into the store and tears down a Mexican flag. Griffin then allegedly harasses Mejía and leaves threatening phone messages, which Mejia saves for police.

"It was an act of war," says Griffin, who has unsuccessfully run for the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican. Charged with civil rights intimidation, phone harassment, theft and vandalism, Griffin is released after witnesses fail to turn up at a court hearing.

"I'm not ashamed of anything I did," Griffin tells The Herald-News.

JULY 25, 2006

Albertville, Ala.

The windows of six businesses owned by Guatemalans or Mexicans are shot out early in the morning, while white-owned businesses on the same street in this northern Alabama town of 17,000 go untouched. A year later, the crime is still unsolved. Albertville police say the attack wasn't racially motivated, although many observers, pointing to which businesses were targeted, suspect otherwise. "We have sporadic, random incidences of windows shot out," says Chief Detective J.T. Cartee.

JULY 30, 2006

Bradenburg, Ky.

Jordan Gruver, a 16-year-old boy of Panamanian descent, is attacked by members of the Imperial Klans of America who are recruiting for the IKA at the Meade County Fairgrounds. Unprovoked, the Klansmen call the far smaller Gruver a "s---," then beat him severely, leaving Gruver with two cracked ribs, a broken left forearm and jaw injuries requiring extensive dental repair. Two Klansmen, Jarred R. Hensley, 24, and Andrew R. Watkins, 26, plead guilty to second-degree assault and are each sentenced to three years in prison. The Southern Poverty Law Center files a lawsuit against the attackers that is later amended to add IKA, its national leader Ron Edwards, and another high-ranking IKA official.

AUG. 20, 2006

Hahnville, La.

Two men, one from El Salvador and the other described by St. Charles Parish sheriff's deputies as "Hispanic," are shot in the legs by Mark Gautreau as they fish in a floodway near Lake Pontchartrain. Witnesses say Gautreau announced he was going to "shoot some Mexicans" before breaking into his own truck (he had locked himself out) to pull out a shotgun and fire at the anglers, who are 500 feet away. Gautreau is booked on two counts of first-degree attempted murder as a hate crime. The case is later dismissed when the victims and witnesses fail to appear for court.

SEPT. 9, 2006

Rockfield, Ky.

A cross is burned on the front lawn of Nelson Espinoza's house in this Louisville suburb next to a sign reading, "My country maybe, my neighborhood NO WAY!!!" Espinoza, a native of El Salvador, lives with his wife in the United States as part of a legal temporary worker program. Almost a year later, the investigation remains open. "We suspect it was probably just kids from the neighborhood," says Warren County Sheriff's Deputy Daniel Alexander.

SEPT. 10, 2006

Hampton Bays, N.Y.

Carlos Rivera, a construction worker from Honduras, is stabbed multiple times outside a bar by Thomas Nicotra and Kenneth Porter, who yell racial epithets during the attack. Nicotra and Porter, who witnesses say also yelled racial slurs at other patrons a night earlier, are both charged with felony robbery and assault with hate crime enhancements. Porter is sentenced to one year in Suffolk County Jail for first-degree assault after testifying against Nicotra. Nicotra is sentenced to nine years in state prison after finally pleading guilty to first-degree assault and robbery.

SEPT. 17, 2006

Laguna Beach, Calif.

A truck driven by two men reportedly hits two Latino workers at a day labor center, and one of the workers is also assaulted. The men in the truck, Artem Soloviev and Dennis Katpilniy, came to the center offering work, but Soloviev ends up in a scuffle with the workers, apparently after they decline his terms. Although witnesses say Soloviev and Katpilniy shouted racial epithets at the workers during the fight, no charges are filed and Soloviev and Katpilniy are released. "We investigated it top to bottom, having collected third-party and the actual defendants' statements, but we did not have enough evidence to support the case," Susan Schroeder, of the Orange County's District Attorney's office, says later.

OCT. 23, 2006

Annapolis, Md.

Hose Aldana and Wilfredo Rodriguez are stabbed and called ethnic slurs by two white men in a pickup truck, according to police. But county police officer Sara Schriver tells local newspapers that since Latinos are technically classified as white, the attack wasn't racially motivated.

"That's crazy," retorts Angela Arboleda, director of criminal justice policy for the National Council of La Raza. "The [victims were] called names and slurs that were derogative to [their] race. That is the most clear-cut evidence that that crime was in fact a hate crime."

NOV. 18, 2006

San Diego, Calif.

Latino workers Estanislao Gonzales and Robert Peña are allegedly assaulted by San Diego Minuteman John Monti at the Rancho Peñasquitos day labor center during a Minuteman surveillance operation. Prosecutors say Monti started the fight after grabbing one of the laborers and chasing him into the street. But jurors later acquit Monti of three counts of battery and one count of filing a false police report.

JAN. 12, 2007

Naco, Ariz.

Javier Dominguez-Rivera, a construction worker from Mexico, is shot dead at close range while on his knees by Border Patrol agent Nicholas Corbett. Corbett claims he fired in self-defense from the front of his vehicle when Dominguez-Rivera picked up a rock, but surveillance footage shows Corbett confronting Dominguez-Rivera at the rear of his vehicle. In addition, autopsy reports show the bullet was fired from between three inches and 2 1/2 feet away, and that it entered below Dominguez-Rivera's armpit and traveled down through his heart, stomach and liver into his lower abdomen.

Dominguez-Rivera was crossing the border with his two brothers and sister-and-law when Corbett apprehended them. The group's eyewitness accounts match the results of the forensic investigation and medical examiner's conclusions. As a result, Corbett is charged with second-degree murder, manslaughter and negligent homicide. Cochise County Attorney Edward Rheinheimer tells reporters: "The evidence shows that at the time he was shot, Mr. Dominguez-Rivera presented no threat to Agent Corbett."

FEB. 7, 2007

Casper, Wyo.

Richard Serafin, who has identified himself as "commanding officer" of a unit of the "Central Wyoming Militia," is arrested after illegally selling a short-barreled AR-15 semiautomatic rifle to an undercover ATF agent. Earlier, he told the agent that he planned to travel to the Arizona border to harm immigrants and boasted that "there may be fewer illegal Mexicans" after his trip. Serafin pleads guilty to possessing two illegal firearms — two of the short-barrel AR-15s — and is later convicted in federal court of possessing firearms to further a crime of violence. He faces a minimum of five years in prison and up to $500,000 in fines.

FEB. 23, 2007

Wright City, Mo.

A Latino immigrant is attacked and robbed by three men yelling, "Immigration enforcement!" who barge into his mobile home armed with a piece of lumber. The immigrant suffers injuries to his right eye and nose. Ryan Scott Harlan, 18, eventually pleads guilty to first-degree burglary and second-degree assault and is sentenced to 15 years in prison. Richard Bryant Lindaman, 17, pleads guilty to the same charges and is sentenced to eight years. The third suspect, Christopher Michael Skelton, is still awaiting trial at press time.

APRIL 18, 2007

Flagstaff, Ariz.

James Wesley Cheek submits a comment to the Arizona Daily Sun threatening to attack a Cinco de Mayo event in a manner similar to the Virginia Tech University rampage just a few days earlier that left 32 people dead. FBI agents arrest Cheek for sending a threatening interstate communication and find that Cheek possesses a collection of firearms and has distributed flyers for the Ku Klux Klan. If convicted, Cheek faces a maximum sentence of five years and up to a $250,000 fine.

MAY 1, 2007

Washington, D.C.

Tyler Froatz Jr., a member of the Herndon (Va.) Minutemen, is arrested after a physical confrontation with human rights activists at a rally. When apprehended by police, he has several knives, a flare gun and a stun gun, and police find a loaded rifle in his vehicle. Days later, investigators search Froatz's apartment and find an additional 15 guns, a Molotov cocktail, a grenade and large amounts of ammunition. Initially jailed on weapons and assault charges, Froatz, 24, is released to his parents in New Jersey a month later to await trial.

MAY 4, 2007

Gaithersburg, Md.

A long-established day-labor center for Latino immigrant workers is set on fire, causing about $2,000 in damage. The center is run by Casa de Maryland, an immigrant assistance organization that has been the subject of many protests and threats. Without any evidence or rationale to support his allegation, Brad Botwin, director of an anti-immigration group called Help Save Maryland, tells The Washington Post that the laborers may themselves have started the fire.

MAY 10, 2007

Dunlap, Tenn.

Frankie Bowman, who in 2005 launched an unsuccessful petition drive to prevent a Mexican nightclub from moving into his neighborhood, is arrested for offering an undercover Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agent $2,500 to burn down Mexico de Noche. Bowan, 52, allegedly told the agent he didn't care whether the building was empty or occupied when the fire was set. He faces trial on charges of solicitation to commit aggravated arson.

Mountain Minuteman founder Robert Crooks E-mails a video to several prominent anti-immigration activists that appears to shows a Minuteman tracking a group of Mexicans through a gun's night vision scope. In the video, an unidentified man can be heard calling the Mexicans "cockroaches" and then firing off a shotgun. "This video shows how to keep a Home Depot parking lot empty," Crooks writes in his cover E-mail, snidely suggesting that recipients know how to "Talk the Talk" but not "Walk the Walk" of effectively fighting illegal immigration. A few days later, a very similar night-vision video surfaces, this one purporting to show a Minuteman hitting a lone Mexican with a sniper shot. Crooks, who initially denies making the videos but then admits it, later says the second video was faked. Although state and federal law enforcement officials look into the incident, no victims are found.

AUG. 8, 2007

Garden Grove, Calif.

Felipe Alvarado, an immigrant working as a janitor at a fast-food restaurant, is taunted with racist threats and then attacked by three men, one of whom is carrying a loaded gun. James Joseph Kelly, Justin Louis Mullins and Cheyne Danica Wilson are arrested and charged with felony assault with hate crime enhancements for allegedly beating Alvarado after yelling, among other things, "Go back to Mexico, you w------!" Wilson is also charged with illegally possessing a handgun.

AUG. 12, 2007

West, Texas

A Latino man is struck in the face several times after getting into a hostile exchange of words outside a convenience store with a group of white men and women who later tell police that they are affiliated with Aryan Nations, a neo-Nazi hate group. The victim, who has not been identified publicly, fled but is attacked a second time later the same night by several assailants who beat, stomp and cut him. The alleged leader of the attacks, Stephen Ray Chapman, is arrested and charged with engaging in organized criminal activity and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. The police continue to search for five other suspects.

AUG. 23, 2007

Montgomery County, Md.

Victor Hernandez, a Honduran immigrant dishwasher, is walking home from work when he is kicked into unconsciousness by teenagers who rob him of $160. The two teens arrested tell police they were "amigo shopping" — seeking vulnerable Hispanic workers to rob. The Washington Post reports "alarmingly common" anti-immigrant crimes in the area of Washington, D.C., and its Virginia suburbs. Police from Montgomery County, Md., and neighboring counties tell the newspaper that the majority of local robbery victims since 2006 have been Latino.

SEPT. 30, 2007

Avon Park, Fla.

José Gonzales returns home to find his car and garage destroyed by a fire set by an arsonist who also spray-painted "F--- Puerto Rico" on the garage walls. Gonzales, a U.S. citizen and a mechanic, loses all of his tools in the fire. No arrests are made in the town, which is famous for its passage of harsh anti-immigrant laws.

OCT. 8, 2007

Omaha, Neb.

Eduardo Garcia wakes up to find his truck and his wife's car set ablaze. Two other cars are also vandalized and have the words "white power" and a swastika spray-painted on them. No one is immediately arrested.