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Rape on the border.

When Luz Lopez left Guatemala to join relatives in Southern California, she dreamed of learning English, going to college, and leaving behind the poverty she grew up in. She planned to send money home to her grandmother and her five-year-old daughter. But her optimism was shattered, she says, when a border-patrol agent in El Paso, Texas, sexually abused Lopez and her friend Norma Contreras, both twenty-three. The women say the agent's supervisor looked on and stood guard while the assault occurred. Both are now in psychiatric counseling, and Contreras was recently released from the San Bernardino County Hospital, where she received treatment after she slit her wrists. They have filed a complaint that the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division is currently investigating.

The two women waded across the Rio Grande near El Paso, where the INS's Operation Hold the Line is in effect. They were chased and captured by a border-patrol agent, then handcuffed together and marched to his patrol vehicle. Once inside the vehicle, they say he instructed Contreras, who was wearing a skirt, to open her legs. He began to fondle her legs and breasts, and forced his fingers into her vagina. He then instructed Lopez to unbutton her overalls, and fondled her as well. The two women say they just stared at each other, paralyzed by terror. "We feared the worst," said Lopez. "We didn't know where he was going to take us. . . . Just the sight of him with a badge and a gun was enough to intimidate anyone."

He drove them back toward the river and spoke with his supervisor. According to the women, the supervisor watched while the agent continued to fondle Contreras and began foundling Lopez again. After the agent had assaulted them, the two men laughed, the women say.

Their ordeal continued when the agent brought them to the office for processing. Lopez says he took her to a back room, told her to strip, turned her against the wall, and continued to assault her sexually. "I couldn't cry or speak or shout. I was struck completely dumb," she says. Once he led Lopez out of the room, he processed her paperwork as if nothing had happened.

Contreras says the agent then turned his attention to her. While the supervisor stood watch at the office front door, the patrol agent followed her into the bathroom and, despite her protests, groped her and forced his fingers into her vagina. While he was assaulting her, he told her she was fatter than her friend.

The agent eventually released the women, gave each a dollar bus fare, and reportedly told them, "You owe me a bundle, because you won't be able to repay the favor I did in your lifetime." Lopez and Contreras contacted their relatives in California while they waited in Ciudad Juarez on the Mexican side of the border, where they could stretch the little money they had. After a week, their relatives picked them up, and Lopez and Contreras made a formal complaint at the border crossing in El Paso.

The two women were given six-month visas pending investigation of their charges. After the six months, which are up in September, the women are deportable. Their attorney has filed two written requests, which were copied to INS Commissioner Doris Meisner. So far, those petitions have met with silence.

Neither agent Nick Gallardo, who is carrying out the investigation for the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General, nor Deborah Carr, an attorney overseeing the case for the department's Civil Rights Division, would comment on the ongoing investigation. Lee Douglass, a Justice Department spokesperson, would confirm only that an investigation by the Civil Rights Division was under way. Such investigations are generally handled by the FBI. The Justice Department then ordinarily decides whether to press criminal charges in federal court.

But human-rights advocates say that such cases rarely make it to court. "The prosecution rate is incredibly low . . . something like one or two complaints actually make it to an indictment stage out of hundreds that are received by the Justice Department," explains Allyson Collins, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch who is familiar with the case.

Lopez and Contreras have been interviewed extensively by investigators. The two women have identified in a photo lineup both the agent they accuse of sexually assaulting them and his supervisor. They say that, while at first respectful, investigating agent Gallardo's attitude has turned increasingly hostile and accusatory.

"There are a lot of ways that INS officials have figured out how to dissuade people from pursuing complaints, and they are usually very successful," notes Collins. "There is harassment, and there is also misdirection."

In the case of rape, Collins says that agents count on women not to come forward and hold their perpetrators accountable. When alleged crimes require the corroborating testimony of a fellow agent, the code of silence among law-enforcement officials is virtually unbreakable--many of the officers charged with investigating such allegations were once themselves field agents.

Collins observes that when it is the word of an undocumented immigrant against that of a low-enforcement official, all too often the courts question the credibility of the immigrant's testimony. She adds that in the rush to beef up the border patrol, many new agents have been hired or promoted without the proper training, opening the door to abuses.

For the women, the wait for justice is slow and tortuous. "I foolishly thought that there was justice here. I hope that it is so, because the days pass very slowly. Very slowly. And things are the same for us," says Lopez.

So far, both agents accused of assaulting the women are still on the job. Although Lopez and Contreras have identified their photographs, the investigators will not turn over the names of the agent and his supervisor to the women's lawyer. If the accused officers are indicted, the U.S. Attorney's office, a division of the Justice Department, will defend them. The women's attorney, Jim Scherer, is concerned that this presents a potential conflict, since the Justice Department is also investigating the alleged crime. "The temptation is to try and garner all the evidence you are going to need to defend those officers and cut into the civil claim of these women against the United States government," he explains.

Contreras and Lopez are still haunted by their trauma. Contreras has nightmares. After a particularly bad night, she attempted suicide and wound up in San Bernardino County Hospital.

"Sometimes you feel as if you can't go on. That's why I slit my wrists . . . but now I think of my daughter. . . . I have to live for her more than ever," she says through her tears. Because the officers remain on the job, the women worry that the agent's abuse continues unchecked. "We are not the first, nor the last," says Contreras.

"I hate him. . . . I will never forget what he did to me."
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Title Annotation:Border Patrol abuses; anti-immigrant politics; Baiting Immigrants
Author:Light, Julie
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Sep 1, 1996
Previous Article:Women bear the brunt.
Next Article:The Clinton courts: liberals need not apply.

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