An Arizona County Sues A Local Publisher Who Wanted To Publish Photos Of Illegal Immigrants Who Died In The Desert.
By David Holthouse
JUNE 1, 1999: SCOTT STANLEY wants to show you photos of dead Mexicans.
Some of the bodies photographed in American deserts are wasted and burned after lying for days as buzzard meat. Others, found sooner, are less unsettling. One is of a 17-year-old girl whose face, except for the doll's-eye stare, belongs in a yearbook, framed with notes from friends; it's dotted with flowers and hearts. Instead, it's attached to a Pima County, Arizona, coroner's report--death by too much desert.
Two of the photos show the bodies of Mexicans who have been shot, multiple times, by U.S. Border Patrol guards. The most recent was Antonio Martinez, killed a few steps inside Estados Unidos last September 9. He was drunk and brandishing a rock. Martinez, 26, was shot once in the back with a .40-caliber hollow-point round, and once in the gut. He vomited blood, crumpled and died as his 13-year-old brother Pablo watched from the Border Patrol agent's Bronco. Then men from the government came and took pictures of Antonio's body. They are some of the same pictures Scott Stanley wants you to see. The people who run Pima County would rather you didn't.
TWO DAYS BEFORE Christmas, Stanley submitted a public records request for the Martinez photos. He also asked for copies of slides of 12 Mexicans who died of exposure near Tucson after crossing into the United States in 1998. On January 13, Pima County's chief medical examiner, Dr. Bruce Parks, wrote back:
"I must consider how releasing this information might affect the interests of the state and how it might also affect the privacy rights of family members. Releasing copies of sensitive photographs so that they may be printed for general viewing by potentially large numbers of the public would be a gross violation of the rights of privacy of the families of the deceased. Therefore, I must respectfully deny your request."
I called Parks, and he told me Stanley's request for the release of pictures of dead Mexicans in American deserts was the first ever in this state.
Evidently, someone above Parks wishes to settle the issue forcefully. Last month, the Pima County Attorney's Office filed a lawsuit against Stanley, asking a judge to declare that photos of dead Mexicans in American deserts can be kept from publications. The Pima County attorney also asks for court costs and unspecified punitive damages.
Parks is named as the plaintiff in the lawsuit, which he characterized as "a decision made mostly by the County Attorney's Office."
"Releasing such photos would set a precedent, and we want to see for sure in the courts that we can not do that," Parks says. "Our intent is not to cover up anything, or hide anything, or protect any government agency. It's really just a consideration of the next of kin. There's a big difference between allowing one individual to view photos of a deceased person from several angles, and showing them to the populace."
Yeah, the difference is more people see them.
The law in Arizona is clear: autopsy photographs are public record. There's no way Pima County could legally stop you or me from viewing pictures of dead Mexicans in Parks' office. By attempting to stop Stanley from publishing those same photos, Pima County officials have positioned themselves as editors of his publication. That's government censorship. Textbook, baby.
The lawsuit against Stanley calls his request "a gross violation of the rights of privacy of the next of kin, and of the loved one."
So let's get this straight: Mexicans don't have a right to an education in this country, or to get a job, and certainly not to vote, yet in Pima County, at least, they acquire the right to privacy as soon as they're found dead in the desert.
Earlier this month, a surprise snowstorm stranded more than 80 illegal Mexican immigrants in the rugged mountains east of San Diego. Nine died and dozens had to be airlifted to hospitals. Last summer, at least 100 illegals died in the desert region stretching north from the Mexico border. Bodies were found huddled under bushes and lying in dry creek beds during one of the most brutal heat waves to hit the Southwest. Not everyone blamed the weather....
IN NOGALES, SONORA, shack markets in squatter districts sell newspapers for three pesos that contain nuptial announcements, soft-core porn, and death-scene photos--overdoses, narco hits, drownings, stabbings, body parts on train tracks and bodies in the desert (the Mexican desert).
On the Mexican side of the border, printing pictures of dead Mexicans is a business. For Stanley, who lives in Tucson, it's a political statement.
"These photos are incendiary. To see them is to realize something is horribly wrong on the border. We're pushing decent people out into the desert to their deaths, using the long arm of a gun. And it's shameful to see them die so anonymously as a calculated matter of policy. We're letting the harsh terrain around the border do the killing for us, and I want to make people aware of what's happening."
Stanley and his fiancée, Debra White, publish the Tucson Poet, a regional literary and political journal, out of an old adobe office on Fourth Avenue. Over the last year, Stanley has researched and authored a series of essays that depict the U.S.-Mexico border as a brutal, militarized zone. His writings attack U.S. programs such as Operation Gatekeeper in California, and Operation Safeguard in Arizona, which have increased the U.S. Border Patrol's budget, and focused interception efforts on zones near Mexican cities such as Tijuana, Juárez and Nogales-- traditionally the main points of entry for those Stanley sympathetically terms "undocumented immigrants."
When Gatekeeper and Safeguard went into effect in 1994, the government predicted that by now there would be a sharp drop in apprehension numbers of illegal aliens.
Last year, the Border Patrol caught an average of 2,000 Mexicans a day along the Arizona border, and estimate three times that many--two million in '98--eluded them.
Mexicans who want to come to America have reacted to the increased Border Patrol presence in populated areas by undertaking perilous journeys through the desert and crossing the map line far from any population center. Often they are ill-equipped. According to the Border Patrol's own numbers, there has been a 600 percent increase in Mexican border deaths in Arizona since Operation Safeguard began. (The real number could easily be higher; there's a lot of desert along the border.)
In this state, the hot zone for illegal entries has shifted from Nogales (an Operation Safeguard target) to more remote desert areas around Douglas, where ranchers have recently formed armed patrols and are calling for the Arizona Army National Guard to reinforce the Border Patrol.
Trash is strewn across fields...equipment, trucks and cars are stolen or destroyed, and fences are cut. My constituents are pleading for help. Something must be done NOW!
I HAVE IN front of me a partial list from the Mexican Consulate in Tucson which documents dead Mexicans whose bodies were recovered in Arizona. This list gives the date and location the body was found, the cause of death, and the name and hometown of the deceased.
On July 29, 1998, the bodies of Miguel Angel Vazquez Godinez, 23, and Ricardo Navarro Poblano, age unknown, were found near the Silverbell Mine, in Avra Valley, 20 miles northwest of Tucson. Both men were from the town of Guadalajara, Jalisco. They are classified as Muerte por Deshidratacion en el Desierto--death from dehydration in the desert.
Godinez and Poblano are two of the dead Mexicans Scott Stanley wants you to know about.
Antonio Martinez is another. Martinez didn't die of dehydration. He died of bullet wounds.
It happened near the Sanchez Canal, just northwest of the San Luis, Arizona, port of entry. According to Border Patrol reports, agent Angel Belen--who had 78 days on the force--shot and killed Martinez after Martinez threatened Belen with a rock. Martinez was 4-foot-11 and weighed 92 pounds. His blood-alcohol content at the time of his death was .192.
Belen reported that after he shot Martinez, the Mexican dropped the rock, uttered "Pardona me," and collapsed. Martinez's brother Pablo, 13, said the two were from a village in Guadalajara, and they had traveled eight days to reach the border. They had planned to walk to Los Angeles.
The Border Patrol and Yuma County Sheriff's Office have both closed investigations into the Martinez shooting; Stanley says he spoke with one Yuma County investigator who insisted Belen was not drunk, and was not shot in the back. The coroner's report says otherwise.
The Border Patrol has a camera pointed at the spot where the shooting occurred. Unfortunately, its operators told investigators, it ran out of tape 20 minutes before the shooting. There's nothing Stanley can do about a tape. He wants the pictures.
"The county attorney's interest here is secrecy, not privacy. They've clearly gotten comfortable with the concept of the border as a war zone where people die in grisly fashion. Otherwise, why would they sue me for filing a public relations request? Basically, they're saying, 'It's okay to shoot a Mexican, just don't let anyone publish the photos.' That's cold."
That's the border.
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