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'Illegal alien' shot, his killer acquitted, without even a riot.

SAN FRANCISCO - The border just had its, Rodney King case, minus the video camera, but this time the victim wasn't a native-born black. He was brown and an "illegal alien." So his murder inspired no insurrections and hardly any press.

His name was Dario Miranda Valenzuela. He was a Mexican laborer, age 26, married, with two small children. At dusk June 12, 1992, Miranda was crossing into the United States through a canyon near Nogales, Ariz. The area is known as a drug-smuggling corridor, and that evening, five U.S. Border Patrol agents were patrolling it, including 29-year-old Michael Elmer.

As Miranda made his way, gunfire rang out. When the air cleared, Miranda had two bullets from Elmer's AR-15 in his back. But instead of calling an ambulance, Elmer dragged the wounded man 175 feet and hid him in a crevice.

A coroner later noted the corpse's clutched hands, indicating Miranda had died in agony. If medical aid had been summoned immediately, he might have lived.

The shooting wasn't reported until 15 hours later - by Elmer's partner. The partner later told authorities that Elmer had planned to come back the next day to bury the body and asked him, at gunpoint, to help. Instead, the partner reported the shooting to his superiors and Elmer was arrested.

Arizona authorities charged Elmer with first-degree murder. It was the first time in memory that a Border Patrol agent had been criminally indicted for killing a civilian in the line of duty.

Human- and civil-rights activists were hopeful. Since the mid-1980s, the Border Patrol has been beefed up with personnel and weaponry - ostensibly to fight a "war on drugs." Since the increased militarization, rights groups have documented wanton use of lethal force against local residents, including undocumented immigrants.

But as an El Paso Times investigation recently revealed, agents are virtually never indicted. The situation is so disturbing that Americas Watch reported on it this year, and several U.S. and Mexico civil-rights groups petitioned the Organization of American States to investigate.

Elmer's trial, then, was a landmark chance for justice. It began Dec. 1, and as it progressed, testimony revealed that agents routinely violate regulations and that they violated several the night Miranda was killed.

Elmer and his colleagues had fired warning shots, which the Border Patrol prohibits. Then they failed to report them, even though every shot must be documented.

Agents admitted they frequently conceal shootings by replacing spent bullets with others saved from target practice. And in shooting Miranda in the back, Elmer also ignored rules that ban firing on fleeing persons.

Elmer defended himself by claiming the border was a "war zone" and immigrants crossing it were the enemy. When he spotted Miranda, he opened fire and the Mexican ran southward. Then, Elmer said, he got a radioed message that armed men were coming from the north. He heard more gunfire and "freaked out."

Miranda was running, wearing camouflage pants, combat boots and a water canteen. The canteen looked like a holster. Elmer fired.

He was a combatant, Elmer said. He was fighting the war on drugs. The border was his battleground. He was afraid for his wife and kids.

But none of this jibed with other information. Miranda was unarmed and had no drugs. (According to his family, he was crossing the canyon to seek work in the drywall trade in Tucson.) Nor was Elmer, according to his ex-wife, a stickler about drugs. And Elmer faces assault charges from a separate incident in which he allegedly sprayed unarmed border-crossers with machine-gun fire.

The judge dropped the first-degree murder charge and left the jury the choice of convicting Elmer for mere manslaughter or negligent homicide. But for a panel inflamed with border-as-apocalypse-now rhetoric, even these lenient charges were excessive. They acquitted Elmer not only of killing, but also of what he had explicitly admitted - covering it up.

It was Simi Valley all over again, with one exception: No one cared. There were no riots in Nogales, no national headlines.

The media did publish two other items that same week. One, the results of a survey of Latino attitudes, reported that most people in this country - including those of Mexican descent - think "there are too many immigrants" here. The other was the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement by Canada, the United States and Mexico, allowing the free flow of all manner of money and goods.

All manner, that is, except people struggling to change an impossible southern pittance for a more promising gringo wage. With the Elmer verdict, the message is out: Most people here are easily persuaded that the border means drugs and disorder, that those crossing it are the enemy.

As long as these attitudes prevail, federal border agents will run amok. And they will do so with impunity.
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Title Annotation:Dario Miranda Valenzuela
Author:Nathan, Debbie
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 29, 1993
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