Tuesday, September 21, 2010
Juan Patricio Peraza Quijada
Author's Preface: In February, 2003, a 19 year old Mexican youth was shot and killed by the Border Patrol. The whole event was disturbing on many levels and I still think about those days after the shooting. What follows is my attempt at writing a piece of journalism—though I’m afraid I’m ill suited for that profession. I wrote the piece following the shooting. In fact, the editor of the The Texas Observer had asked me to write it. But after I submitted what I’d written, the editor informed me that it was not suitable for publication. She did not elaborate. As I said, I am ill suited to be a journalist. The piece has been sitting in my computer for the past seven years and I post it here for the first time. I suppose I’m compelled to post it here because of the turmoil that is still brewing on this piece of earth that I call home. Even as I write this, I am thinking of the young photo-journalist who worked for El Diario, Luis Carlos Santiago. He was gunned down last week in Juarez. He was 21 years old. His murder is still being investigated, but the legal system in Juarez at this time does not give me much hope that his killers will be brought to justice. And even in our own country, where we have a functioning judicial system that most of the world admires, I do not believe that Juan Patricio received any justice. The country I live in—the country I love—does not always live up to its promises.
Tomorrow I will post an interview I conducted with his parents when they attended a Mass in honor of their son that was held at Annunciation House just after their son was killed.
Just Another Mexican
Juan Patricio Peraza Quijada was killed by a Border Patrol agent in El Paso, Texas on Saturday, February 22nd. Critics of the Border Patrol (especially on the Mexican side of the border) used the strongest terms to describe the death of this nineteen year old Mexican National. In fact, terms like “murder,” “assassination,” and “homicide” came up repeatedly not only in the mouths of many border residents and activists, but in newspaper accounts and headlines in Ciudad Juarez’s two major newspapers. One of El Norte’s headlines screamed: ‘Ejecutaron’ a mexicano. [They executed a Mexican].
On the U.S. side of the border, some used terms of cautious (if not conservative) compassion, describing his death as an unfortunate incident. In an editorial, The El Paso Times cautioned readers not “to rush to rash judgment,” and went on to warn: “But it’s less than helpful for people to begin flinging about unproved accusations of threats and intimidation. Enforcing border-crossing laws is an emotional business at best. Whipping up those emotions will only hinder, not help, the investigation.” And yet there seems to be little question that it was not the community activists who were hindering the investigation, but the Border Patrol itself.
One of the many ironies in this whole “emotional business” was that it was the Police (along with a representative of the Mexican Consulate) who urged the witnesses to testify as to what they saw regarding the shooting. But once the witnesses were at the Police station, things took a more complicated turn. But then again, straight lines are a rare thing on this raw and jagged border. Even entering a police station to give the police a statement can turn into something worthy of a Borges short story.
“Had it not been for our presence,” Lynn Coyle, an attorney for the Lawyers Committee on Civil Rights says emphatically, “our clients would have been detained by the Border Patrol without probable cause. The Border Patrol attempted to deport them without allowing them access to their attorneys. Giving testimony to the Police Department about a shooting in which the Border Patrol was involved does not constitute probable cause.” At one point there was even a shouting match between Coyle (who gave birth to a baby boy a day later) and one of the border patrol agents. Coyle reminded the Border Patrol agent that his job was to abide by the laws and enforce them—not to break them. He yelled back and reminded her that it was not her job to tell him what his job was. Neither of them budged from their convictions. On this day, it would be Coyle and her clients who would win the day. But only because a few things fell their way. Her clients might have just as easily been deported.
Coyle, along with another attorney, Michael Wyatt was present on the scene at the request of the Mexican Consulate and Annunciation House, the site where the whole incident began. Wyatt, director of El Paso’s office for Texas Rural Legal Aid, was equally convinced that the Border Patrol intended to remove the witnesses from the jurisdiction by deporting them. “If a narco trafficker had shot a boy dead on the streets and then sent some of his gang members to the Police Department with the effect of intimidating the witnesses and preferably removing them from the jurisdiction of the District Attorney before they had an opportunity to testify to the grand jury, then we would know exactly what was going on. We would not be fooled as to what their motives were. We would know exactly why they were doing that. And, in fact, we would be outraged. We would know that a whole separate class of crime was being committed. Nobody would ever dream of allowing such a thing to happen. But because it was the border patrol, it doesn’t seem to get the same kind of attention. I don’t see any other way of looking at it—that’s exactly what they were doing. They had no other valid justification for being there.”
Certainly, in showing up at the El Paso Police Department when the witnesses were giving their testimonies, the Border Patrol showed poor judgment. In addition, they put their colleagues in the police department in a difficult and compromising position. It is reasonable to conclude that the Border Patrol agents present either asked or assumed that their law enforcement colleagues would release the witnesses to them.
“These cops knew exactly what was going on. They knew the Border Patrol was planning on deporting these witnesses. But there was that blue wall of silence. They were pulling together—even though they knew they were damaging the investigation. I don’t know if the police department has a policy with respect to allowing the Border Patrol access to witnesses to crimes, but in this case, the police were essentially telling us to our faces that they had no problems with allowing us to give legal advice to these witnesses who had invoked their right to council—yet they were not willing to allow us access to them. They didn’t necessarily want to participate in what the Border Patrol was up to—but it soon became clear that the Border Patrol was putting pressure on the police not to allow us access to these individuals.
“That’s when I decided to call the Mayor. I got him on the phone and told him about the situation in much the same way that I’ve just described it. I simply asked him to help me make contact with the Chief of Police so that I could discuss the situation with him. Five minutes later, the chief of police called me. Again, I explained the entire situation, and I told him that his detectives were not allowing me access to my clients. He told me he was going to make a phone call and find out what was going on and get back to me. Five minutes later, one of the detectives came out and told us we were welcome to go back and speak to our clients. In this particular case, we were very lucky. Things fell into place. So much of the time, it doesn’t. The Mayor and the Chief of Police deserve credit for seeing exactly what was going on, and for cutting through the crap.”
Ruben Garcia, Director of Annunciation House where Juan Patricio was a guest, asked three pertinent questions regarding the matter of the Border Patrol’s conduct:
1) Given that a shooting resulting in a death had just taken place and eye witnesses were in the process of having their statements taken, why was BP so intent on determining the legal status of those witnesses and why was BP so intent on deporting those witnesses if it was determined that they might be witnesses to a shooting?
2) How is that BP agents had access to witnesses at the EPPD in the midst of an investigation when BP was a party to the shooting?
3) How was it that a witness, at the EPPD station, transported there by EPPD with assurances that the witness would be returned to her place of residence, ended up in the custody of BP?
As Garcia points out, one witness was handed over to the Border Patrol. Proceedings against her were about to begin when Ouisa Davis, director of the Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services, arrived on the scene. By coincidence, when she arrived at Annunciation House, a Border Patrol agent was on the phone.
“I took the phone and spoke to the agent. He wanted to confirm that my client’s children were living at Annunciation House so that he could notify the Mexican Consulate so that they could be reunited with their mother in Mexico. They told me she had signed a voluntary departure form. It was just so surreal. And I simply told them ‘She’s not going anywhere. She’s a witness to a potential crime. I told them I wanted to talk to her.”
Davis drove to the detention center, and three hours later, she walked out with her client. “I kept asking them why they were doing this. They kept saying they were just doing their job. I reminded them that they had discretion in the way they did their job. But they simply kept repeating that they were just doing their job.”
When asked to comment about the appropriateness of their presence at the EPPD central station, Doug Mosier, spokesman for the Border Patrol said that Border Patrol agents did not interfere with the investigation, and that he could not comment further.
“El Norte reported in its pages that the Police had promised to protect them if they came forward with information on the shooting. “The Border Patrol showed up and tried to deport various witnesses who had no documents. Fortunately, a group of human rights lawyers took charge of their defense . . .” Indeed, various sources with whom I spoke confirmed that the police had promised to protect these witnesses if they came forward to testify. As an aside, but in a matter related to the community’s perception that the Border Patrol uses tactics of intimidation, El Norte devoted an entire story to the Border Patrol’s intimidation of the neighborhood where the shooting took place. The headline read: Intimida Patrulla Fronteriza a vecionos. [The Border Patrol Intimidates Neighbors]. Yes, unfortunate might be a word that applies to this whole incident. Unfortunate for Juan Patricio. Unfortunate for the Border Patrol’s image in the community. Unfortunate for the witnesses who stepped up to give their testimonies despite the great risks involved to their own persons. Unfortunate. Perhaps there are better words.
For some members of the community, Juan Patricio was looked at as yet another victim in the long history of clashes between undocumented immigrants and those charged with policing the U.S./Mexico border. In this view, he was just another footnote in the continuing drama being endlessly written and rewritten by the competing interests of two countries that are both at peace and at war with each other. With so many human beings moving back and forth in this sprawling metropolitan area of El Paso/Juarez, incidents like this, however unfortunate (there’s that word again), are bound to happen. These deaths and clashes and arrests are an ordinary part of life on the border. An inevitability.
In the scheme of things, perhaps Juan Patricio was just another victim. Obviously, from the perspective of the Border Patrol, Peraza was a man who presented a threat to officers who were faced with a difficult choice. If, as the Border Patrol maintains, Peraza posed a real threat, then his shooting was not only justified, but it was the victim himself who was to blame for his own death. On the same day that Juan Patricio was killed, the Border Patrol sent out the following press release defending its own actions:
Border Patrol Agent Attacked, Shoots Suspect
El Paso — At approximately 9:00 a.m., an individual being questioned about his immigration status by Border Patrol Agents fled from the officers. As they pursued the subject, an agent was assaulted. The suspect then brandished a length of metal pipe and threatened the agents. He was repeatedly told to put the pipe down, but refused. The suspect then attacked one of the officers with the pipe and was shot by that officer in an act of self defense. EMS transported the assailant to Thomason Hospital where he was pronounced dead at 9:35 a.m.
Despite the hastily put-together protestations of the Border Patrol—who were all too quick to exonerate themselves by proclaiming that their actions were justified, not one witness corroborated the story put out by the Border Patrol’s Press release. Not one witness mentioned an “assault” on a border patrol officer. There was probably a scuffle or some kind of struggle (though, to my knowledge no witness has given any testimony to that effect). It can be reasonably conjectured that when Juan Patricio jumped a small chain link fence and entered a yard, one of the Border Patrol’s officers followed him. It is reasonable to assume that there was some kind of struggle between the agent and Juan Patricio before the victim jumped back over the fence where he was killed. But in my lexicon, the word “assaulted” conjures a much more proactive and violent portrait of the victim than this turn of events seems to warrant. When asked to comment upon discrepancies between the version in their press release and other accounts, Mosier said he could not comment as their was an ongoing investigation. In fact, he mentioned there were three ongoing investigations—an internal investigation by the Border Patrol itself, the local investigation being conducted by the D.A. and an FBI investigation.
According to some accounts, Juan Patricio tossed a ladder in the path of a Border Patrol agent as he panicked and tried to run from the Border Patrol agent. Perhaps, this is what constitutes an “assault.” In one newspaper account in El Diario, Socorro Cordova Hurtado, the spokeswoman for the Mexican Consulate in El Paso was quoted as saying, “What the witnesses have told us is contrary to what the Border Patrol is saying. It was an excessive use of force and we classify this as a homicide.” (The Mexican Consulate, it should be noted, has been involved with this case from the very beginning and has classified the shooting as a high priority case and is using diplomatic channels to protest the actions of the Border Patrol).
Referring to the victim as an “assailant” is, well, let’s just call that an “unfortunate” characterization of a nineteen year old who can no longer tell his side of the story. Certainly the Border Patrol’s characterization seems overstated. Certainly disrespectful. Some would even say that the characterization was indecent.
Decency and indecency. Those words have come up several times in the course of speaking to people about this whole incident. Perhaps those are words we might reflect upon when the name Juan Patricio passes through our lips.
The Border Patrol’s strategy, of course, targeted an unquestioning U.S. media that have absolutely no inclination to question the tactics of a governmental agency trying to save face. But there is a larger audience on the stage that the Border Patrol must also take into account—the community at large. A community which they are ostensibly committed to protect. Apart from any legal issues that have arisen from Juan Patricio’s death, there is a very real social contract between the Border Patrol and this large border community. Though Mosier maintains that the Border Patrol has a good working relationship with the community, in fact, this incident exposes that the relationship between the community and the Border Patrol is fragile and tenuous. It appears that at this particular moment in time, the relationship between the residents of this border community and the Border Patrol is again at a breaking point—just as it was at a breaking point when the Border Patrol was arresting students at Bowie High School in the late eighties, just as it was at a breaking point a decade earlier when Border Patrol agents were entering downtown bars and arresting patrons as they sipped on a beer and gave a whole new meaning to the phrase, “May I see your ID.”
Then, as now, public pressure calmed down the extreme tactics of the Border Patrol. But only the storm of indignant residents and community leaders (along with pressure from the courts and the work of some committed members of the legal community) brought about those moments of calm. In the meantime, there is another storm. Perhaps storm is another word we should keep in mind when referring to death of Juan Patricio.
A storm is exactly what preceded in the days following Juan Patricio’s shooting. The Wednesday after the shooting, a meeting of local legal and social services was held. The group met in order to establish a local monitoring group to make sure the investigation proceeds in a transparent and forthright manner. That same group has since met with Mayor Caballero and discovered that the city has an oversight committee statute already in place that applies to overseeing the actions of the Border Patrol and other border law enforcement agencies. Though the oversight committee is currently inactive, the group has urged the Mayor to reactive the board in order to make the actions of the Border Patrol accountable to the populace. Though such an oversight committee would only exist in an advisory capacity, it could still serve as an official and highly visible body.
Such a body might be able to put enough pressure on the Border Patrol with regard to how they develop and implement protocols in situations such as the one that led to Juan Patricio’s death. It is in the best interest of both the Border Patrol and the community that some kind of understanding be arrived at. As Wyatt points out, “It’s not a good idea for policeman to allow Border Patrol access to witnesses. We need clear lines and policies so it’s not an emergency every time something like this happens.” A war between the Border Patrol and the community serves no one—certainly not the community and certainly not the newly arrived immigrants who come to this country to find a way to earn their daily bread. A militarized border is in no one’s best interest.
Certainly, there are signs that the community is fighting back in the face of the Border Patrol’s actions. A week after Juan Patricio’s death, over a hundred people gathered for a press conference to address the issues surrounding the events leading to the shooting of Juan Patricio. At the press conference led by prominent immigration attorney, Alberto Armendariz, Jr., many community leaders gathered at Casa Vides to condemn the actions of the Border Patrol. Among the organizations represented were LULAC, MABA, Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services, La Fe Clinic, Pax Christi, ACLU, The Green Party, MALDEF, Border Network for Human Rights, Border Women’s Network, Associacion de Trabajadores Fronterizos, and a host of religious groups and religious orders. The group read a statement that was later published in The El Paso Times and signed by well over a hundred individuals and organizations. The statement, in part read, “The press conference convened the afternoon of February 22nd by Border Patrol Chief Barker that sought to characterize the shooting as justified was premature and uninformed.” The signers called upon the Border Patrol to ensure that “all material witnesses” to the shooting of Juan Patricio “be allowed to give testimony as needed without fear of harassment or deportation . . . ”
The statement ends with a call for the Border Patrol to cease “targeting shelters for the homeless and underprivileged . . . Such selective law enforcement aimed at the weak and disadvantaged is inconsistent with the letter and spirit of the laws of the United Sates and represents a tangible threat to our freedoms.”
A few days later, two hundred people marched to San Jacinto Plaza in a “Walk for peace, justice and rights of immigrant workers.” The following Sunday, five hundred people attended a Mass in honor of Juan Patricio. The Bishops of El Paso and Las Cruces presided and lent their voices in support of the rights of the immigrants among us. In attendance were Juan Patricio’s parents whose visit was arranged by the Mexican Consulate. They were surrounded and comforted throughout the mass by the people of the neighborhood who had already built an altar on the site where Juan Patricio was killed.
After the Mass, the people encircled Annunciation House, dipping their hands into buckets of holy water and blessing the house as a symbol of protection. An old woman traced the sign of the cross, then held herself up as she wept. A younger woman pounded her fist against the wall. Hope and grief and rage, perhaps these are the words we might consider using to describe the death of Juan Patricio Peraza Quijada.
Certainly, the community was in no mood to be passive in the face of what they perceived as an act of aggression against them. Perhaps, it was a time to pray. But it was also time to push back. There were more protest signs than rosaries in the hands of the people who attended the mass.
As a whole, the members of the community on both sides of the border consider Juan Patricio’s death an outrage—a preventable incident, an unnecessary attack not only on a singular human being, but also another disturbing example of how the border patrol has little respect for the barrio and for the religious institutions that exist to protect the most helpless among us.
Enrique Moreno is a prominent attorney who sometimes works on behalf of Mexican Nationals as a courtesy to the Mexican Consulate—un abogado consultor. He becomes thoughtful as he tries to process the turn of events. At the request of the Mexican Consulate, he has agreed to represent the interests of Juan Patricio’s family. “This didn’t have to happen,” he says sadly. “You can imagine a young man who was scared at being confronted by the Border Patrolman. It’s not so difficult to understand that he panicked. Eventually, he found himself surrounded by Border Patrol agents. He continued to panic. But this whole thing didn’t need to happen. We have to look at the whole situation is much broader terms. From a matter of public policy, common sense, common decency, did this have to happen? The Border Patrol was certainly responsible for escalating what could’ve been an ordinary exchange between an agent and an individual who was here without proper documentation. Instead, a nineteen year old boy winds up dead. But who are the adults in this situation?
“The way the Border Patrol decides to deal with the community is very much the community’s business. The District Attorney and the F.B.I. have to decide whether this shooting was justified on a very narrow basis. But, we, the community, ask other questions. It is not only our right to do so, it is our duty. And the question for us is not only did Juan Patricio have to die, but what are we going to do—we, the community and the Border Patrol, together—what are we going to do in the future so that there are no more shootings on our streets?”
But not everyone is thoughtful or enraged or even engaged with the events that occurred on the morning of February 22nd. Certainly, for some, the death of this nineteen year old Mexican male was not a thing of any great consequence. As Ruben Garcia observed, “People like Juan Patricio, because they are undocumented and poor, are seen as disposable people, individuals of no account.” Still others asked aloud why some activists were making such a fuss when the border patrol officer “was only doing his job?”
What should we call it, then, this death of a nineteen year old Mexican boy? Shouldn’t it matter, what we call it? Before that morning, Juan Patricio was just another anonymous Mexican who crossed the border in search of a better life like a thousand other young men before him. There was nothing unique about his story or his motives for entering this country. He wanted to better himself. He was ambitious. He was intelligent. He was a hard worker. He wanted to take advantage of what this country had to offer. He dreamed of being successful. He dreamed of taking his family out of their inherited poverty. He had drive, all the energy of youth, and, by all accounts, charm. In short, he had all of the qualities most successful American capitalists possess. “Why not me?” he probably asked himself. After all, with the naiveté of a typical nineteen year old, he was only buying the myth this county loves to sell. If America is going to sell the elixir of “freedom” and “opportunity” then we can hardly blame the consumer for buying the product we’ve so seductively stacked on our shelves.
“He was like all Mexican young men,” his mother said, “he dreamed of coming to America and making something of himself.” Had he not been killed by the border Patrol on that otherwise peaceful morning on that otherwise peaceful street, most of us would never have heard his name. But he was killed. So now, we do know his name. And we are all the sadder for the knowledge that comes in pronouncing the name of yet another boy who has entered the country of the dead.
—from the Border, Benjamin Alire Sáenz