PHOENIX — Two Latina mothers are the main witnesses in parallel murder
trials that shed light on the political climate of a state that has
become a hotbed of extremism, according to human rights organizations.
women’s stories have slipped under the radar of Arizona’s conservative
political leaders, who have fueled the illegal immigration debate by
shifting the spotlight to undocumented immigrants and border violence
and away from deadly vigilantism.
Paula Valera, Mother of Juan Varela
Varela testified recently about the day she watched her son, Juan
Varela, fall to the ground after he was fatally shot in the head a few
feet outside his home in South Phoenix on May 6, 2010.
the stand as a key witness in the murder trial of the man accused of
gunning him down, their next-door neighbor, Gary Kelley.
to Kelley’s attorney, Kelley approached Juan Varela to talk about
Arizona’s new immigration law, SB 1070, and shot Varela in self-defense.
Juan Varela’s brother, Anthony, testified that Kelley, who was drunk at
the time, was armed and looking for more than neighborly conversation.
Kelley reportedly yelled racial slurs at his neighbor and said, “You f-----g Mexican, go back to Mexico!"
Varela, 44, and his family are Mexican Americans who have lived in Arizona for several generations.
the aftermath of the passage of SB 1070— one of the toughest
anti-immigration laws in the nation —the Varela family’s attempt to
highlight the murder as a hate crime has gone largely unnoticed. And so
has the trial of his accused killer.
Gina Gonzalez, Mother of Brisenia Flores
mother is not alone in her sorrow. Another mother recently took the
stand in a different trial in Tucson for a shooting that happened almost
a year before Varela’s. This time the victims were a 9-year-old girl
and her father.
On May 30, 2009, Gina Gonzalez pretended to be
dead after intruders shot her and fatally shot her husband Raul Flores
inside their home in Arivaca, Ariz., a town about 13 miles from the
She listened as her 9-year-old daughter, Brisenia
Flores, pleaded for her life. Then the shooter reloaded the gun and
killed the little girl.
The alleged ringleader of the crime is
42-year-old Shawna Forde, a leader of Minuteman American Defense (MAD),
an armed watch group whose goal is to detain and report undocumented
immigrants attempting to cross the border. Prosecutors argue that Forde
tried to finance her anti-immigrant activities with robberies like the
one that led to the fatal shootings in 2009. She is facing the death
Jury deliberations have started in the Varela murder case, and are expected to begin this week in the Flores shootings.
Where Were the Media?
Galindo, a local pro-immigration activist and radio talk-show host,
calls the case of Brisenia Flores a “red flag.” If Arizona politicians
and communities had rallied against the killing of the 9-year-old and
her father, he says, Juan Varela might never have been slain.
believes Varela’s murder would have created an uproar in Arizona but
for the fact that Phoenix police made early statements pushing the case
under the rug, denying that it was racially motivated or related to SB
The case was later labeled a hate crime under former
Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, after pressure from the family
with the help of ethnic media and community members like Galindo.
speaks about the murder often on his bilingual radio show on Radio KASA
in Phoenix. “If you allow rhetoric to continue to escalate against a
certain ethnicity, it’s going to become a situation where it’s okay to
violate, to abuse and to kill,” he says.
Neither case has
received as much media coverage as the death of Arizona rancher Robert
Krentz on March 27, 2010, which was used by SB 1070’s sponsor,
Republican Senator Russell Pearce, to rally votes for the bill’s
Conservative bloggers and talk show hosts immediately
tried to tie Krentz’s unresolved murder to undocumented immigrants,
after authorities found footprints leading from his property to the
Steve Rendall, senior analyst for Fairness &
Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a New York-based organization that
monitors media bias, said news outlets jumped too quickly on the Krentz
slaying when there was little information. He said the case received
more coverage than the Flores and Varela murders because mainstream
reporters and editors “fear being seen as liberal or left-leaning.”
conservative politicians used the rancher’s death to push an
anti-immigration law, the murder of the 9-year-old and her father has
been dismissed by many as the act of a mentally disturbed individual.
political right has run away from the Shawna Forde case as fast as its
feet can carry it, essentially suggesting that this murder has nothing
to do with anything beyond a crazy woman,” says Mark Potok, director of
the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project. “There’s a lot
going on out there, and it’s not the headless bodies that (Arizona
Governor) Jan Brewer likes to talk about.”
Brewer signed SB 1070
into law, arguing that violence from Mexico was crossing the border and
that numerous headless bodies had been found in the Arizona desert—a
claim has never been proven.
But Potok said popular support for
anti-immigration measures and political gains for lawmakers who espouse
them have opened a Pandora’s box demonizing Latinos that will be
difficult to close.
“I think that Arizona’s response to the
vigilante movement was fundamentally to engage in the same kind of
activity itself. Rather than trying to deal with the problem of
immigration rationally, the politicians in Arizona ultimately endorse
that kind of attack,” he says.
Jesus Romo, a civil rights
attorney in Tucson, agrees. He argued one of the successful civil
lawsuits against Douglas vigilante rancher Roger Barnett for threatening
two Mexican-American hunters and three young girls with a rifle in
2004. The Ninth Circuit last week upheld an Arizona jury’s decision on
another lawsuit against the same rancher brought by the Mexican American
Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF). He was fined more than
$80,000 for assaulting a group of migrants on public land. The federal
court found that he was not entitled to claim self-defense because none
of the people he assaulted had threatened or attacked him.
total impunity when it comes to assaults against minorities, especially
against Mexicans,” says Romo, who blames the state for turning a blind
eye to the activities of border vigilante groups. “Apart from that, they
are treated as heroes for what they do, so they feel in the right of
attacking people without anything happening to them.”
Strauss, the state director of the Anti-Defamation League, doesn’t
believe the media “intentionally de-emphasizes crimes against minority
But he is concerned that the current tone of the immigration debate in Arizona has forced hate crime victims into the shadows.
“We are not getting complaints about hate crimes against Latinos in this community as I imagine take place,” Strauss says.
One Hate Crime Trial or Two?
shootings of Brisenia and her father have never been labeled hate
crimes. But for human rights groups that have followed the case closely,
the murders clearly meet that definition.
arguing that Forde and her two accomplices, Jason Eugene Bush and Albert
Gaxiola, were motivated by financial gain. Forde is accused of
targeting for robbery the little girl’s father, whom she suspected of
being a drug dealer, and using the proceeds to fund her border watch
Groups like the Anti-Defamation League had been monitoring Forde and her organization since 2007 with growing concerns.
came onto our radar because she was increasingly taking more extreme
action,” says Marilyn Mayo, director of right-wing research at the
Anti-Defamation League. Mayo says Forde formed the more extreme MAD
because she wasn’t satisfied with what other Minutemen groups were
Before the shooting, there were claims that Forde’s group
was going directly after drug cartels. In 2008, Forde claimed that
Hispanic intruders raped her in her home— the police dropped the
investigation for insufficient evidence— and she suggested the attack
could have been retaliation for her undercover investigations of drug
dealers in Washington, according to the ADL.
The ADL also noted
that some of Forde’s ardent supporters have ties to white-supremacist
groups, including Laine Lawless, who recently created the website
www.justiceforshawnaforde.com. Lawless has been linked to white-supremacist organizations like the National Socialist Movement and National Vanguard.
Attorney Jesus Romo believes Forde’s prosecution can’t be separated from her role in MAD and her stance on illegal immigration.
are not tying this to what she dedicated herself to: the hunt of
Mexicans, and this was yet another chapter within that hunt that ended
in death,” he says.