Silent Treatment

Southern Arizona joins the pack in law-enforcement secrecy

The borderland grips its secrets like a fist. From revolutionary gun-runners and Prohibition booze smugglers to modern narco-traficantes, this remains an opaque region where details easily devolve into rumor and myth.

Today, terrorism has deepened the subterfuge, as increasing layers of law enforcement filter into Southern Arizona. In Nogales, Ariz., a nadir of the unspoken was reached in December, when a body-armored phalanx of local police and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents raided two homes.

Neighbors saw the raids. So did motorists. Even a delivery van driver for the Nogales International newspaper witnessed the action.

But more than a month after those incursions, the DEA remains mum, and prohibits the Nogales Police Department from releasing anything but the barest threads of information.

After an endless series of phone calls, the International (owned by Wick Communications, which also owns the Weekly) still has no information to share with its readers. And that doesn't sit well with publisher Robert Kimball.

"I think with the war on terrorism and homeland security and everything, a lot of agencies are using it as an umbrella to push (the secrecy) envelope," he says. "Everybody in town could drive by and see what's going on. So what's the big secret?"

Rebecca Daugherty agrees. As freedom of information director for the Reporter's Committee for Freedom of the Press, she calls secret raids "a very big problem. You would think," she says, "that agencies could give out some information without compromising their cases, especially when they arouse such public curiosity. It starts gossip and rumors--something you think they'd want to head off at the pass."

Today, this conundrum places the Nogales International at the forefront of a public information battle royale with roots in Washington, D.C.

The International's fight to inform its readers began in November, when Arizona Department of Public Safety officers--complete with a helicopter--descended upon a trailer flanking a Montessori school in nearby Patagonia. "We knew nothing about it at all," says school volunteer Sunshine Howells. "You'd think, if (DPS) were planning a raid next to a school, they'd notify us so that no one was on the playground. They had a helicopter and armed guys in SWAT vests, so they certainly felt it was enough of a risk to themselves to wear their full gear."

Afterward, information remained elusive. "It was several days before the Nogales International was able to even ascertain on the record exactly what agency was involved," the paper noted in an acerbic Jan. 10 editorial. "After an initial, 'We would never do anything like that,' DPS finally fessed up but downplayed the raid and the irresponsible way it was handled," wrote Managing Editor Manuel Coppola.

A Weekly reporter also spent several days chasing down details, before DPS spokesman Frank Valenzuela finally described the raid as "drug related." As for the daunting Patagonia presence, DPS "realized that there was a school within 400 yards, and they felt that an overwhelming presence of police power would take care of anything that might spill into the school area," he says.

According to Valenzuela, information had been withheld because the raid was part of an "ongoing investigation. But at this point, I'm choosing to release this information to you."

Soon, the DEA was unleashing its own raids. At 10:30 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 20, assisted by the Nogales Police Department's Special Response Team, federal agents rushed two Nogales homes.

But even today, neighbors harbor plenty of questions. "All we saw were a lot of cops, DEA and a SWAT team just a block away," says Gustavo Valenzuela, a butcher at the Royal Road Market near one raid. "But we still don't know anything about it. We've been looking in the papers, and we haven't seen a thing.

The NPD's Lt. Eddie Rosas offers a tidbit. "The only thing I can tell you is that the DEA used our SWAT team to enter two residences off of Patagonia Highway," he says. "Beyond that, I couldn't give you information even if I had it. You would have to get it from the DEA."

And that's exactly what the International tried in vain to do. "When it is said by neighbors and others that arrests were made and property was seized, concerned citizens may have some questions," reporter George McQueen wrote on Jan. 12. "But when you find out it was an operation coordinated by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), getting answers is complicated if not impossible."

The Tucson Weekly fared little better. "I hate to say the same thing ..." DEA spokeswoman Ramona Sanchez began. "It's not a matter of hiding something. But further enforcement is anticipated on this case."

Daniel Barr calls that a big red herring. Barr is an attorney at the Phoenix firm Perkins, Coie, Brown and Bain, and lead counsel for the First Amendment Coalition of Arizona. His office filed a Freedom of Information Request on behalf of the International, and he argues that government agencies can't sequester all information under the "ongoing investigation" rationale. "That," he says, "is an overused reason."

But it's a reason with new resonance. Within weeks of the Sept. 11 attacks, Attorney General John Ashcroft released the "Ashcroft Memorandum" directing federal agencies to scrounge up any "sound legal basis" for withholding information. Ashcroft's Justice Department guaranteed legal support for such decisions.

The results are self-evident--and widespread. In North Carolina, Richard W. Burgess Jr. was killed Dec. 23, but the Wilmington Morning Star was unable to get information for several days. "Similarly, it took from a Thursday to a Tuesday for us to report the murder of Dallas V. Shepard Jr., beaten to death at a Thanksgiving Day pig picking in Pender County," reports the paper.

Similar situations have occurred in Texas, reports The Monitor of McAllen. "It has been almost a year since the public reeled from the revelation that 24 lawyers, one expert witness, three businesses and two individuals whose occupations are still unknown were listed in a sealed FBI search warrant that allowed agents to simultaneously raid the office and home of state District Judge Ed Aparicio," reports the paper.

Today, the Monitor and area residents are still waiting.

To fight this spread of secrecy, newspapers and journalism groups are planning a national campaign dubbed "Sunshine Week." In a Jan. 1 Associated Press article, AP chief Tom Curley called the situation dire. "From City Hall to Congress, and from police chiefs' offices to the attorney general's office, the trend toward secrecy is unmistakable," he said.

And to test the informational waters, several Arizona news organizations dispatched reporters in September to retrieve public information from 119 public agencies.

The results? Approximately 50 percent of the agencies dragged their feet for several weeks. And nearly a quarter never released the documents in a timely fashion--or at all.

That's a situation Robert Kimball of the International knows only too well. "I think," he says, "that overzealous police are using terrorism to keep information from all of us."

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