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A death on the border.

The U.S.-Mexico border just had its Rodney King case, minus the video camera, but this time the victim wasn't an African-American. He was an "illegal alien." His murder inspired no insurrections, and hardly any press.

Twenty-six-year-old Dario Miranda Valenzuela was a Mexican laborer, married, with two small children - an auto mechanic, tortilla-maker, and soccer fan. He and his family lived in Nogales, Mexico, in a house made of scavenged sheet metal, with no bathroom.

At dusk last June 12, Miranda was crossing into the United States through a canyon near Nogales, Arizona. The area is known as a drug-smuggling corridor and, that evening, five U.S. Border Patrol agents were patrolling it. One of those agents was twenty-nine-year-old Michael Elmer. As Miranda made his way, gunfire suddenly rang out. When the air cleared, Miranda had two bullets from Elmer's AR-15 in his back. Instead of calling an ambulance, Elmer dragged the wounded man 175 feet and hid him in a crevice under a tree.

A coroner later noted the corpse's clutched hands, indicating that Miranda had died in agony. If medical aid had been summoned immediately, Dario Miranda might have lived. But the shooting wasn't reported until fifteen hours later - by Elmer's partner. The partner later told authorities that Elmer 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 while on duty.

Since the mid-1980s, the Border Patrol has been beefed up with personnel and weaponry - ostensibly to fight a "War on Drugs" against invading hordes of wetback narcotraficantes. During the past few years, the number of Border Patrol agents at the U.S.-Mexico line has more than doubled, and their turf now extends far beyond mere immigrant-chasing: They are authorized to enforce all Federal laws and often pack such high-powered weapons as M-16s or the AR-15 Elmer was carrying.

This skyrocketing level of paramilitary readiness "has confused the Patrol's mandate and created an us-versus-them mentality," says Maria Jimenez, coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee's Immigration Law Enforcement Monitoring Project in Houston. Jimenez's group and several others have lately documented dozens of reports of Border Patrol agents' wanton use of lethal force against civilians. The reports range from Texas's Rio Grande Valley all the way to southern California and occasionally farther north.

Miranda's death at Elmer's hands was merely one in a series of brutal and sometimes fatal incidents. In 1987, Juarez auto mechanic Armando Valenzuela drowned when two Border Patrol agents capsized the inner tube Valenzuela was riding across the Rio Grande, commuting to his job in El Paso.

In 1988, Ismael Ramirez died in Madera, California, after agent Michael Lewis began questioning the undocumented teenager about his immigration status. When the frightened youth started to run, Lewis caught him, lifted him horizontally to shoulder height, and dashed him to the pavement. Ramirez died shortly afterward of a skull fracture and brain hemorrhage.

In 1990, at the border fence in Tijuana, an agent shot and killed Victor Mandujano Navarro, seventeen, after he tried to escape apprehension in the United States by climbing the fence back into Mexico.

Weeks later in Calexico, a fifteen-year-old perched atop a border fence was shot by an agent firing nine-millimeter hollow-point bullets. The boy lived, but his liver, stomach, intestine, and lungs were severely damaged.

The most immediate cause of this violence, says the AFSC's Jimenez, is inadequate training and supervision of agents. In 1991, the Justice Department admitted that almost half of its Border Patrol agents weren't certified to use their firearms. Neither were they being trained to report their use of lethal force.

But the Justice Department still declines to discipline errant agents, even repeat offenders. In the Madera incident, for example, agent Lewis had a long history of misconduct. During a six-year period, he was involved in a theft, two vehicular collisions (one of which killed a migrant), and serious assaults on two farm workers. Except for a month's suspension for the theft, he was not punished and he still works for the Border Patrol.

An Americas Watch study released in 1992 found the agents' lack of training or accountability a violation of human rights "similar in kind and severity to those about which we have reported in many other countries." Subsequently, other groups in Mexico and the United States petitioned the Organization of American States to investigate.

Then came Elmer's trial and the chance for some landmark justice. It began on December 1, 1992. 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, a practice Border Patrol regulations prohibit. 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. In shooting Miranda in the back, Elmer also ignored rules that prohibit firing on fleeing persons.

Elmer claimed that the border is a "war zone," and immigrants crossing it are 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 dark green 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.

But none of this jibed with other information. Miranda was unarmed and was not ferrying a drug load. According to his family, he was crossing the canyon to seek work in the dry-wall trade in Tucson. And Elmer's shoot-'em-up may not have been his first: He faces assault charges in a separate incident in which he allegedly sprayed unarmed border crossers with machine-gun fire.

The judge in the Miranda case dropped the first-degree murder charge and left the jury the choice of convicting Elmer of second-degree murder, manslaughter, or negligent homicide. For a panel inflamed with Border-as-Apocalypse-Now rhetoric, though, even these lenient charges were excessive. After twelve days of testimony, they took only a few hours to acquit Elmer not only of the killing but also of what he 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.

What the media did publish that same week were two other items. 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 among Canada, the United States, and Mexico, allowing the free flow of all manner of money and goods. A border open to everything, that is, except people struggling to exchange an impossible pittance for a more promising gringo wage.

Attorneys and activists with Tucson's La Mesilla Organizing Project are pushing the U.S. Attorney to prosecute Elmer for criminally violating Miranda's civil rights. "How the new Administration handles the Elmer case," says Jimenez, "will be a litmus test for its position on immigrants' civil rights."

Without further action after the Elmer verdict, however, the message is out. Most people here are easily convinced that the border means drugs and disorder, that those crossing it are the enemy.

As Miranda's cousin Maria Valles puts it, "The agents have a license to kill now. To kill anyone without papers who dares to cross."

Debbie Nathan, an El Paso writer, is an associate of Pacific News Service and an activist with the Border Rights Coalition.
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Title Annotation:Border Patrol agent Michael Elmer acquitted of murder of Dario Miranda Valenzuela
Author:Nathan, Debbie
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Mar 1, 1993
Previous Article:Lines in the Sand.
Next Article:Blame it on the baby boom.

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