Fear on Patrol

Border-area rapes challenge a stumbling system

Who can say when they first tasted fear? The desert in darkness offers few clues of time or place--and particularly for those fresh from the border, tramping north through an unfamiliar land of cactus and arroyo.

But fear came regardless. It arrived as masked men toting rifles in the uncertain hours before dawn. It was Saturday, May 3, and as those armed men advanced on the small group, fear turned to terror.

When it was done, three women had been raped, two of them minors. One of the women had been violated by six men.

Today, it appears that the women have been deported back to Mexico, though authorities were unable to confirm this at press time. There is apparently no court case pending. For all legal purposes, the matter of these rapes is most likely dead--although for the women, the fear most certainly is not.

According to immigrant-advocacy groups, nearly all women and female children smuggled north face some degree of sexual abuse, including rape. It is now considered "the price of admission." (See Currents, June 5.) And since these horrid crimes occur in a murky milieu, law-enforcement officials consider them among the toughest to pursue. But others say that our society turns a blind eye to such horrors, leaving little pressure on the justice system to become more aggressive.

In this case, Santa Cruz County sheriff's deputies interviewed the three women, who didn't file formal complaints. But even those willing to press charges find the deck stacked against them, says Dr. Sylvanna Falcón, an assistant professor of sociology at Connecticut College in New London, Conn., and an expert on human rights abuses along the U.S.-Mexico border. Like all rapes, border assaults are underreported, she says. "But in the case of these particular women, who are undocumented and traveling across the U.S.-Mexico border, there could be additional repercussions if they come forth."

The women could impact their deportation proceedings, or anger the rapists who may be incarcerated among them in federal facilities.

At the same time, law-enforcement investigators face vague crime scenes and obscure criminals. If a rape occurs in a U.S. city, police can start knocking on doors. "But with us, it happens in the middle of the desert, and the perpetrator is from another country," says Agent Mike Scioli, a spokesman for the U.S. Border Patrol's Tucson Sector. "So how do we find them?"

It's often hard to determine whether the assault even occurred on this side of the border. But if agents believe they have jurisdiction, the wheels start turning, says Scioli. "The moment the victim tells us, local authorities are called, and we immediately begin gathering any information we can. Where did it happen? Is the (perpetrator) in our custody now? Things like that, so (victims and suspects) can be separated right away."

Still, "from my experience, you often don't find out until you're already at the station, and they're in a holding station. A lot of times, the women won't say anything until six or seven hours later."

The rapist's continued presence could be a reason, he says, or it could be that women don't want to identify someone who might retaliate once they return to Mexico. But when there is a positive ID, "then everybody is separated, and they're both held."

If the rapes are reported in Santa Cruz County, a criminal-investigation division is called in, says Sheriff Tony Estrada. "We try to do the same as we would with any victim. We try to get as much evidence as we possibly can, so hopefully, we can come up with a suspect.

"The unfortunate thing is that some of the (rapes) are not reported, and some of the victims have a very vague memory of what happened, or they won't be available to testify" after they're returned to Mexico.

Estrada's department works closely with the Mexican Consulate, he says, "so that we have all the information should we need to contact the victim at any time."

But nobody pretends that such contacts are frequently made. "There are just a lot of issues," Estrada says, "that make for a very difficult type of investigation and prosecution."

In most cases, the custody of detained immigrants quickly passes from the Border Patrol to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But as with the Border Patrol, rapes reported to ICE officials are generally turned over to sheriff's and police departments. "The assaults would be a local investigation," says ICE spokesman Vincent Picard. The exception "is when we have a human smuggler in custody, and we want to try to bring federal charges. Then we would try to use the (victim) as a material witness, if the incident occurred in a drop house or as part of a smuggling operation."

Regardless, "serious incident reports are sent up the chain of command to headquarters, so everyone is aware that an assault has taken place," Picard says. "The agency would also contact the local health service so the victim could receive counseling."

Michelle Brané directs detention and asylum programs with the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, based in Washington, D.C. While acknowledging the challenge of these cases, she remains critical of what she characterizes as meager federal efforts. "To be fair to ICE and Border Patrol, in most cases, the women probably don't say anything about the rapes," Brané says. "And I don't blame those women. They're being detained, and it's usually a very law-enforcement-type environment. But in most cases, (law-enforcement officials) don't really respond" even when victims do come forward.

Given the systemic barriers to finding justice, Brané's goup has focused on getting the victims basic assistance. "For example, are they given medical exams?" she says. "Are they tested for sexually transmitted diseases? Are they provided any counseling services? The answer is often no."

Still, she lauds ICE for recent efforts to revise its detention standards--a revision she says now includes a more formalized protocol for addressing sexual assaults.

But Falcón argues that the current system still fails rape victims. Women often don't know who they should file criminal complaints with. And even when they do, their cases are compromised even before they start. "It's extremely difficult to gather the type of evidence, like a rape-kit exam, that could be used in a court proceeding," Falcón says. Then there is the little problem of deporting the victim to another country.

"Sure, if the Mexican Consulate gets involved as an advocate for the victim, those victims are sometimes given temporary residency," Falcón says. "But often, it doesn't get that far. An investigation may be proceeding, but there's such a need to deport people right away that the case is never officially opened."

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