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.
The 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
Paula 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.
She took the stand as a key witness in the murder trial of the man accused of gunning him down, their next-door neighbor, Gary Kelley.
According to Kelley’s attorney, Kelley approached Juan Varela to talk about Arizona’s new immigration law, SB 1070, and shot Varela in self-defense.
But 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.
In 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
Varela’s 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 Mexican border.
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 penalty.
Jury deliberations have started in the Varela murder case, and are expected to begin this week in the Flores shootings.
Where Were the Media?
Carlos 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.
Galindo 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 1070.
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.
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 passage.
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 Mexican border.
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.”
While 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.
“The 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.
“There’s 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.”
Bill Strauss, the state director of the Anti-Defamation League, doesn’t believe the media “intentionally de-emphasizes crimes against minority individuals.”
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?
The 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.
Prosecutors are 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 group.
Groups like the Anti-Defamation League had been monitoring Forde and her organization since 2007 with growing concerns.
“She 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 doing.
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.
“They 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.