Down by Law

Angry border residents claim the feds aren't listening

Marlene Sotero dwells in the shadows of chaos. Men with flashlights rumble around her house in dark hours, she says, scaring her children half to death. She claims her son is stopped randomly on the street, just because he's brown.

Marlene Sotero lives on International Street in Nogales, Ariz., with the Arizona-Mexico border as a stern neighbor. Not surprisingly, the U.S. Border Patrol is her neighbor as well. And the result is a war zone, where many residents accuse federal agents of making their lives miserable.

Some of those citizens from Arizona's border towns of Nogales and Douglas traveled north last Friday, to protest outside the squat, concertina-laced Tucson Sector headquarters on West Ajo Way. Marlene Sotero was among them.

"We receive poor treatment from the Border Patrol," she said, a cap shading her face. "Agents speed through the streets, never using their turn signals. They just don't care about pedestrians or other drivers on the road. My son is always being harassed by them--as soon as he leaves the house, they're stopping him for no reason."

Sotero kept quiet, worrying that her family would be targeted. But she found comfort in numbers at last week's rally, organized by Tucson's Border Action Network. In August 2004, BAN hosted a community forum where anger simply erupted. "People had been afraid to speak out," says Jennifer Allen, BAN's director. "They fear repercussions; they fear being targeted, because (the Border Patrol) is so dominant and so imposing in their communities, where they're told they don't have any rights."

Sector Chief Michael Nicely ignored invitations to attend the forum, says Allen. Nor did the agency respond to several specific complaints submitted to them after the 2004 meeting. On Friday, BAN responded by handing Tucson Sector officials a list of recommendations, including the creation of an independent civilian complaint review board.

But all complaints already are handled seriously, according to Tucson Sector spokesman Gustavo Soto. They are first received by community relations officers, he says, and then handled within the agency.

However, the number of such complaints wasn't readily available at sector headquarters, and the method for handling each one isn't shared with the public. The agency also failed to comply with a Freedom of Information Act request from BAN last year, concerning the complaints procedure. "They said it got lost somewhere," says Allen.

The lack of public accountability raises red flags. But such worries are misplaced, according to Mario Villarreal, a Washington, D.C., spokesman for the Customs and Border Protection, which includes the Border Patrol. "We have gone to great lengths to build relationships" with border communities, Villarreal says, "because not only do we work in the areas, but we also live in the areas." And despite accusations from Sotero and others, "We absolutely do not racially profile individuals. We question everybody. That's one way to avoid any discrimination."

In turn, agents can enter a yard "if we're in hot pursuit," he says. "An example would be where we are tracking somebody, where we have footprints that are leading away from the border area, that either go through the fence or jump over the fence."

Villarreal adds that high-ranking agency officials "meet routinely with community leaders, as well as business leaders and law enforcement leaders." Mayor Albert Kramer of Nogales didn't return a phone call seeking to confirm that claim. But Douglas Mayor Ray Borane does describe his city's relationship with the Border Patrol as "outstanding," and says he hears complaints only sporadically, "usually about the way (agents) drive their vehicles."

At BAN's community forums, however, residents reported routine abuses. They include Jeovana Mendoza of Nogales, who says Border Patrol agents stopped her car, threw her cell phone and handcuffed her for no reason. And Judicia Hernandez in Douglas, who claims that children aren't allowed outside to play, for fear they'll be hit by speeding agents.

It could be argued that conflicts are inevitable in the sprawling Tucson Sector, where more than 2,300 agents compiled more than 426,000 apprehensions since October. But that doesn't satisfy Dr. Lee Maril of East Carolina University. Maril recently authored Patrolling Chaos: The United States Border Patrol in Deep South Texas, and says community relations are "definitely one of the areas (the Border Patrol) needs to work on. They spend most of their time going out and interdicting drugs or undocumented workers, and (providing) border security in general. But they don't have a lot of experience working with communities."

Maril says he's assisting members of Congress (who he declines to name) in drafting a measure to reshape the Border Patrol. Among other things, it could suggest that Border Patrol officials look towards "community policing" such as practiced in Tucson and other cities. This involves building better day-to-day ties with neighborhoods and individual residents. "They could look at what municipal police departments have done in terms of informing the community, being sensitive to the needs of the community, and learning from the community so that they can perform their jobs better."

Whether that happens remains to be seen. But the time for change is now, says Maril. "What I found in studying (the Border Patrol) is a federal agency that needs to be looked at closely by the community, by the public and by politicians. And it is in broad need of reform."

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