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Militarization of the Arizona Border

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Dennis Bernstein and Isabel Garcia discuss increased militarization of the Arizona border and the attendant human rights abuses of the immigrant population in Arizona. Since the Tucson sanctuary trial, the border has seen an increase in the presence of law enforcement agencies, including the ATF, INS, DEA, U.S. Customs and the Department of Defense. Agents are also increasingly well armed, with border guards carrying the firepower of military soldiers. Rights violations include unlawful search and seizure, rape and murder. The acquittal of border guard Michael Elmer of the murder of Dario Miranda Valenzuela is discussed as a landmark case. Also discussed is Task Force 6, a joint military operation that is preparing for an invasion from Mexico. Pentagon documents suggest a plan for low-intensity warfare along the border.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman.

Dennis, you are an investigative reporter who’s been exploring a lot of areas. And one that I think I first came to know your work on was Arizona, when you were down there covering the sanctuary movement and the trials that were taking place there. And because the Arizona primary just finished up there — that’s the Republican primary; next week, that’s in two Saturdays, will be the Democratic primary in Arizona — we wanted to touch on something that the mainstream media is not looking at, and that is the militarization, the increasing militarization, of the Arizona border, the border with Mexico. Now, we’ve heard a lot about Pat Buchanan’s feelings about immigrants and his call for building a wall. But, in fact, he is not the man in power today in the United States. President Clinton is. And we’re talking about this militarization that’s been going on today. Can you talk more about it and introduce our guest, who you’ve worked with in Arizona? ”

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: OK, well, to contextualize, Amy, this current militarization grew out of the Reagan administration with Oliver North’s attempt to suppress the sanctuary movement. This is a movement, was called the “modern Underground Railroad,” to help torture victims and victims of war, wars happening in Central America, in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua. I went down there to cover this Tucson sanctuary trial, which was the arrest of 12 — a dozen priests, nuns, church workers, who were helping these victims. And the first day was in the courtroom, a Vietnam veteran — actually, a veteran of World War II, a liberator of concentration camps, stood up — his name was Duncan Murphy — and slapped his hands, his red bloody hands, on the walls of the courtroom to protest the treatment the U.S. government was bringing upon Salvadorans and Guatemalans. He was comparing it to what he saw in World War II. It was very intense, political. The INS was bugging churches. They were in parking lots. It wasn’t unusual to see these agents taking down license plate numbers. They were infiltrating Bible study meetings and prayer meetings to sort of nail the sanctuary movement. They were calling them slave traders. They were equating them to the coyotes who would bring many Mexicans and Central Americans into the country to do slave labor for the big farms. This was the beginning of the militarization of the border. This is where our guest, Isabel Garcia, comes into the picture, trying to advocate for immigrants’ rights at the border. And she has done a lot to call attention to the extreme militarization of the border that’s been going on since that trial.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, and then we’re going to go to Isabel Garcia, who is in Tucson, who’s been doing this work for more than a decade now. Dennis, we want to thank you for joining us, and do stay with us. After we speak with Isabel Garcia and then talk a bit about D’Amato, we’re going to move on to the youth vote. We’re going to talk about youth apathy, and not so apathy, youth not being so apathetic. And then we’re going to be joined by a group of young people who will talk about how they’re portrayed in the media and what their plans are for this election year. You’re listening to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Coming up, young people talking about their own lives rather than how they’re characterized in the media and in the society. But right now we’re talking about Arizona, a story that we didn’t hear anything about this week as the Republican primary was taking place. We’re joined by Dennis Bernstein, Pacific News Service associate editor and also KPFA producer here in Berkeley. And we’re joined on the telephone from Tucson by Isabel Garcia, who is a legal defender in Pima County in Tucson, which is the equivalent of a public defender.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: Isabel, this is Dennis Bernstein with Amy here. You were there 15 years ago, when the beginning of the sanctuary movement started. You were there when that young Salvadoran woman in 1981 showed up in your town with a bullet in her chest, and you began to advocate for these Central Americans. You were there in the Tucson courtroom, and you’re there now. Could you talk about the militarization of the border region of southern Arizona since that trial?

ISABEL GARCIA: Yes. I would have to say that the militarization, however, is going on throughout the southern border, but, of course, we monitor the situation regarding human rights of the Arizona border. And we have seen a dramatic increase, not only, of course, in budget allocations to enforcement in such, and all of it going to the southern border, but we see the actual militarization with our own eyes. Without even looking at Tim Dunn’s pioneering study about the militarization, we have been witnesses to the growing militarization of a border between two supposedly good friends and good neighbors, and, of course, an area that has much history that we really can’t go into right now. But we have seen — since the sanctuary trial, we have seen, year after year, a growing militarization in the form of not only more Border Patrol agents, but we have seen the involvement of other sectors of law enforcement, and even now the Department of Defense, in regard to monitoring the border. We have seen —

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: Talk about the human rights violations. You talk about hundreds of violations. You talk about serious abuses. Talk about how the INS is treating people with darker skin.

ISABEL GARCIA: Yes. Our communities are basically under attack. I would venture to say it’s generally almost a police state in some of our areas. Most folks are used to having the involvement of their metropolitan police department, maybe even their sheriff, but when you live at the border, you have — in your midst, you have U.S. Customs, you have Border Patrol, you have DEA, INS inspectors, ATF officials, the local sheriff, the local police department, and now we have elements of the Department of Defense.

So what we have found is that our communities are basically living in a deconstitutionalized zone. We don’t have constitutional rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. That’s the most common, of course, and least egregious of all of the violations. And that is, we are stopped now because of the color of our skin. We’re stopped by all law enforcement, doesn’t matter who it is. And they’re enforcing immigration laws and demanding to see our paperwork. It’s a little bit like apartheid, where you had to have your little pass or what have you. And this is happening on a daily basis.

Of course, people are also insulted, screamed at. They’re divided. Their families are divided, with screaming children on one side and parents on the other. They put dogs to our persons and our cars, trying to sniff out drugs or what have you. They tear up people’s local crossing cards and immigration cards. They take away driver’s license. They beat people up. They shoot people. They rape women. And they kill.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: And this has been — and this has been documented also by Human Rights Watch. Talk about — you were an attorney. You attempted to prosecute or to help bring to justice Michael Elmer, who was abusing Dario Miranda and that family. Talk about how Elmer was allowed to operate with impunity and how this represents the kind of treatment you’re talking about here.

ISABEL GARCIA: Yes. June the 12th of 1992, Michael Elmer, a Border Patrol agent, shot and killed Dario Miranda, and he shot him in the back. He shot him twice. He shot six or eight rounds and shot him twice in the back as Dario Miranda was fleeing back to Mexico. We were — in the immigrant rights community, those of us that advocate for immigrant rights, we thought we had gained quite a victory, because we were able to get first-degree murder charges against Dario Miranda. The local county attorney, also a Hispanic, and, of course, you know, he’s been involved in all of our campaigns in the past to bring these issues to light, they actually brought first-degree murder charges against Michael Elmer. This made history, United States history. Although it’s not the first time Border Patrol agents have killed immigrants, it’s the first time that one had been charged for first-degree murder.

And he was acquitted. He was acquitted in the state courts, in spite of the incredible evidence that was presented to a jury, including that he had been shooting at other people, at other groups of Mexicans in the past. He was allowed to walk free. Those of us in this community were outraged. We demanded federal civil rights charges, similar to Rodney King, because we figured this was the Rodney King of the border rift. This was the Rodney King case of the Latino community in this country, where a man died at his hands. And so we agitated and were able to get federal civil rights charges.

Again, an all-white jury acquitted Michael Elmer. And it’s very clear that the people in those juries acquitted him because of the poisoning that our public has gone through in regards to immigrants, that basically Dario Miranda brought on his own death by crossing into this country illegally.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: Isabel Garcia, we only have a minute or so left. Could you just briefly talk about Task Force 6? You know, people are talking about Lamar Alexander was saying we need another branch of the Armed Forces to guard the border. Buchanan says electric fence. Talk about Task Force 6 and these mock exercises, which prepare — in which the joint military prepares for an invasion from Mexico.

ISABEL GARCIA: Yes. This is probably one of the most frightening aspects of what’s happened lately. And that is the involvement of the Department of Defense, who had — in the past, the military had not wanted to become involved in the enforcement of civil law, because they’re trained to kill. Now we have the Department of Defense very intimately involved in the border, and with, of course, Lamar Alexander and others clamoring for their participation at the border.

It is coming in the form of Joint Task Force 6 at this time, that’s based outside of El Paso in Texas. And that is a police now — basically, a task force that combines the forces of the military, U.S. Customs, Border Patrol, DEA, ATF and all of the local law enforcement. It’s a very dangerous development for our community, because we know that, in fact, the involvement of the military can spell nothing but trouble for us.

We have seen in their documentation that they do plan and they are going forward with a plan of low-intensity conflict, which was practiced, begun in Vietnam wars and then in the wars in Central America, where it’s a low-intensity warfare on the population, with one element trying to win hearts and minds. And we’ve seen an example of that, too. We had a Border Patrol helicopter on Christmas coming down with a Santa Claus, giving gifts to these children, when we know that it’s these very people that violate human rights and separate families on a daily basis. They have been given — the Border Patrol has been given all this training by the military. They are there as advisers, supposedly will not engage at all unless they’re fired upon. And let me tell you, the Marines have already done a shootout in December of ’89 here in Nogales, Arizona.

Nogales, Arizona, was also the location where they established a mock detention camp. And in this mock detention camp, what they did was practice for the potential of an invasion, supposedly, of people running away from Mexico. And this is where we would detain human beings. We are building walls. They want triple fences along San Diego. Here in Nogales, they have put steel matting on the wall. And, of course, they have all of the equipment, night sensors, the infrared sensors, and the firepower that you would not imagine, that local law enforcement agents cannot possess probably ever unless they’re in a specialized unit. All of the Border Patrol agents possess this firepower.

The trial of Michael Elmer was very, very significant in that in the court of law these agents had to testify about the massive violations of regulations and of law that were practiced just on that one evening. And these are gentlemen, some of them, that are trafficking in drugs. Michael Elmer was trafficking in drugs at the time, as well as those of his other unit. And this was not allowed by the court to surface to this jury. They tried to make Dario Miranda a drug trafficker, because he wasn’t carrying drugs, so supposedly he was a scout. So it’s a Catch-22. If you’re carrying drugs, it’s because you’re a drug trafficker, and if you’re not, it’s because you’re a scout. And the jury was fed all of the negative stereotypes and all of the misinformation about immigrants. And as a result, he was released.

AMY GOODMAN: Isabel Garcia, we do have to wrap up, and we just have about 15 seconds. But back to the primary, I just wanted to sum up with this. You’re describing a very extreme situation, which is under a Democratic administration. You just experienced the Republican primary, where there was a lot of rhetoric, very fierce, against immigrants. Does that have an effect in Arizona as they leave and you have to continue to live there? Or, considering the situation, is it just really a drop in the bucket?

ISABEL GARCIA: No, the heated rhetoric is going to hurt us for a long time, just like the passing of 187 has hurt us here in Arizona. There’s no way that we can escape the net effect of what they leave after they leave our state. And I believe that we are going to see more and more violations of human rights of our community.

AMY GOODMAN: Isabel Garcia, we want to thank you very much for joining us from Tucson. Isabel Garcia, a legal defender in Pima County, Tucson, which is the equivalent of a public defender. We thank you very much for joining us on Democracy Now! Next Saturday — not this coming Saturday, but next Saturday — is the Democratic primary in Arizona. It won’t get as much attention, because Bill Clinton is the only major candidate, major candidate in terms of who the press recognizes as running for president.

Now, we’re going to be moving on to the youth vote and then youth activism in this area, in California, and how young people are using the media, are columnists in local papers and are using the radio. But in our last minute remaining, I wanted to go back to you, Dennis Bernstein, and talk about the piece you had this week in the San Francisco Chronicle, since we just have a minute —

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: The Bay Guardian, the San Francisco Bay

AMY GOODMAN: The San Francisco Bay Guardian. Sorry, I’m coming in from out of town. And since we just have a minute, we want to have you back next week as we move into the New York primary to really describe the politics of Senator Alfonse D’Amato, the Republican senator from New York. But give us a taste of “King Alfonse,” the name of your piece.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: Well, this is about Alfonse D’Amato, who is the money behind Bob Dole. He’s also the money behind the Senate’s — Republican Senate’s push to take over, to have a majority, a veto-proof majority, in the Senate. Alfonse D’Amato may very well be the dirtiest politician that ever served in Congress, at least the top 10. This is somebody who was in bed with Michael Milken and has links to three organized crime families, appeared as a character witness for a Mafioso captain and tried to intercede on behalf of a Mafioso godfather with the U.S. attorney in New York. This is Alfonse D’Amato.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, that U.S. attorney is the current mayor of New York, isn’t he?

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: And people wonder why he’s the only person in New York state that doesn’t support Bob Dole and Alfonse D’Amato.

AMY GOODMAN: So, this is Alfonse D’Amato, who we do not hear much about. He has — as you said, he is the support behind Bob Dole in New York.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: He’s also the lightning rod for the Senate on Whitewater. The idea that this guy is the purveyor of ethics around S&Ls, when he, along with Michael Milken, opened up the S&Ls to junk bonds, is unbelievable.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Dennis, you have your own personal story, having worked for Alfonse D’Amato when he was Hempstead supervisor out in Long Island, quite an interesting story, that almost went to court. But we’ll talk about that more next week. Dennis, we want to thank you for joining us for this segment of Democracy Now! Dennis Bernstein, associate editor with Pacific News Service here in California and also the co-host of Flashpoint, a radio news magazine that is heard daily on Pacifica station KPFA. Thanks for joining us this morning.


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