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Despite Arpaio's pardon, his Arizona victims say: "We won"

Saved from a humiliating end by his friend, President Trump, the former sheriff from Maricopa county shows no remorse. His victims feel defrauded, but find comfort in the fact that Arpaio will go down in history as a symbol of intolerance.
26 Sep 2017 – 08:23 PM EDT
Sheriff Joe Arpaio during a recent interview in his private office in Fountain Hills, Arizona. Crédito: Alonso Parra / Univision

PHOENIX, Arizona -- Dan Magos remembers Dec 4, 2009 as one of the most humiliating days of his life. He waited in his truck at a red traffic light near his home in Phoenix, with his wife Eva, when one of Joe Arpaio’s officers, D. Rusell, pulled up next to them and saw their faces.

Without any apparent motive, the officer turned around and flicked on his siren. Magos had not committed any crime and after three minutes of waiting, he exited his van confused.

The officer shouted an order to get back in his vehicle. He asked him if he was carrying drugs, weapons or, to his astonishment, “bazookas.” Magos told the officer that he had a gun and a permit to carry it. The officer made Magos get out of his vehicle so that he could be searched. Legs spread and hands on the side of the truck.

Back then, Arpaio had turned Hispanics into a priority target for patrols in Maricopa county, which includes the metropolitan area of Phoenix. During those long minutes, Magos could not shake from his head the images of raids in Hispanic neighborhoods in southern Phoenix; streets blocked off by dozens of police cars; neighbors running to hide in their homes; the cries of children who had seen their mothers or fathers being arrested.

Years later, the victims of this terror believed they had found justice and that the man responsible for their suffering would face a humiliating end. Last November, Arpaio lost his bid for his 7th reelection as Maricopa County’s sheriff. This July, a judge declared him guilty of disobeying another judge in a case of racial discrimination. On Oct 5, he was to be sentenced.

Luckily for him, three weeks ago his friend Donald Trump came to the rescue, granting Arpaio a presidential pardon.

The day the clemency was announced, Magos says he felt deeply disappointed. Since he arrived in the United States in 1958, aged 12, from Chihuahua, Mexico, never had he had such a negative experience with law officers. He had prospered in the U.S. with his own construction business and his two daughters, Rebecca and Ana, had attended university in large part, according to Magos, thanks to the U.S. “It’s the greatest country in the world,” he says.

“My wife always told me that I was more patriotic than people born here,” recalls Magos, 72, during a conversation in his home -- a house he built himself. He flies an American flag on his front door.

While he was detained, Magos asked officer Russell why he had been stopped. Only after he had asked a third time did the officer let him go saying he had not seen the number plate on Magos’s vehicle, a ridiculous excuse because in Arizona no one is required to have a number plate on the front of the car.

For Magos, the worst part was the fact that his wife had to witness that kind of abuse. Eva passed away in January last year from cancer and days before dying she said “we are going to beat Arpaio.”

“How come I didn't win?”

Arpaio will go down in history as a symbol of intolerance and racism against Hispanics, but he says he is actually a victim of a witch-hunt led by Democrats. Trump’s clemency is unprecedented as presidents usually grant pardons to criminals who have expressed at least a semblance of remorse.

"An apology for doing my job? That would never happen," he said defiantly in his office in Fountain Hills, just northeast of Phoenix. "I think if I stood on a big tower and I screamed at everyone, at all Hispanics, and I said that I disagreed with all the deportations and said 'I love you all' it wouldn't make any difference."

He wore a loose blue Hawaiian shirt and he was accompanied by Ava, his wife of 60 years. Now, without any political power or employees under his command, the former sheriff still occupies an office that is seemingly a museum dedicated to his own achievements. There is a collection of Arpaio action figures, career memorabilia such as autographed pink boxer shorts, and many stacked boxes filled with articles and video clips in which he is featured.

The pardon has raised his profile among the right-wing nativists resentful of immigrants. Once again he receives offers to give speeches at Republican events all across the country and he is working on a book in which he plans to settle scores with his political enemies, among whom are the judges who deemed his actions illegal, and the Obama administration.

Arpaio spends most of his time in Fountain Hills, where he has a house next to a beautiful lake with a fountain that shoots water to a height of almost 200 yards. When it was inaugurated in 1970, the fountain was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the highest fountain in the world.

In this community, he still has many supporters who believe he is a victim of an unjust political persecution.

In November, Arpaio lost his first election since 1992. Democrat Paul Penzone won, promising to end the culture that the previous sheriff had instilled in his 800 deputies.

Penzone received 665,478 votes (55.6 per cent) against Arpaio’s 531,674 (44.4 per cent). Arpaio believes he was a victim of electoral fraud and dirty tactics on behalf of the Obama administration which announced the charges against Arpaio only days before the election.

"Everywhere I go I get everybody, 'I voted for you, I voted for you'. I say if everybody voted for me, how come I didn’t win?"

Holed up in his personal museum, Arpaio ignores, or chooses to ignore, the pain he caused.

“Why is it that when talking about illegal immigration people feel sorry for everybody? Why?” says Arpaio.

“Years of terror”

The immigrant raids were approved by Arpaio himself. Most of the time they were in response to calls from the public to a hotline designed to report undocumented immigrants, according to documents analyzed by federal judge Murray Snow years later in a case against Arpaio’s practices.

The calls he received were much like one from Aug 1, 2008 in which a woman from Sun City, a community of retirees (a large demographic among his constituents) complained of “Spanish being spoken in a McDonald's at Bell Rd and Boswell.” She asked the sheriff to “rid the area of illegal immigrants.”

In another letter, from May 8, 2008, a resident complained illegal immigrants “know little to nothing about this country other than the fact that welfare is better here than in Mexico.”

Carlos Garcia, director of Puente, an activist organization conceived to fight against Arpaio’s abuse of power, said; “those were years of terror. In no other place in the country was happening something like that on a similar scale."

During a raid in 2008, at the GolfLand Sunsplash water park, in Mesa, Arpaio’s deputies discovered that a cleaning lady, Guadalupe “Lupita” Rayos was working, undocumented, under a fake Social Security number. Days later, at dawn, the officers showed up at her house as her children, Angel, 8, and Jacqueline, 6, were sleeping. The officers arrested Rayos before her son's unbelieving eyes, who had woken up due to the noise.

Rayos fought for years against the deportation order, but this February ICE agents deported her to Mexico as she became one of Trump’s first deportations. Her family fought for her release arguing that the raid in which officers made their discovery was unconstitutional in the first place.

“It has been very difficult to teach my children to live without resentment,” says Lupita’s husband, Aaron Rayos, 35, who is now living Guanajuato with his parents.

Elected for the first time in 1992, Arpaio did not give much attention to illegal immigration until many years later when he realized that this “crusade” would win him votes.

He became famous as the “toughest sheriff in the United States” for carrying out humiliating and cruel punishments against those he arrested. He fed them terrible food, forced them to walk around in chains, and made them wear pink underwear. Arpaio is famously associated with Tent City, a camp he set up where prisoners were forced to suffer in the Arizona heat with no air conditioning.

Arpaio was sued by the families of inmates who died in county prisons due to abusive treatment. The plaintiffs blamed Arpaio for promoting cruelty.

It was in April, 2005, that Arpaio unwittingly found himself in the middle of a controversy against the immigration hawks in his state.

By then, Arizona saw the emergence of vigilantes, civilians taking the law into their own hands to arrest undocumented immigrants. One of these vigilantes, Patrick Haab, was arrested by Arpaio’s officers when he was found holding seven undocumented immigrants at gunpoint at a rest stop.

Initially, Arpaio kept Haab behind bars charged with seven counts of aggravated assault, ignoring his excuse that he was acting in self defense. But a few days later Andrew Thomas, the county prosecutor, intervened.

Thomas, who had campaigned on an anti-immigrant platform, announced that he would not prosecute Haab, arguing his actions were justified as the man smuggling the group had committed a federal felony, as well as those being smuggled, because they had conspired with the coyote to have themselves smuggled into the country.

Thomas and Haab were praised as local heroes. Arpaio learned his lesson and the following year he decided to make illegal immigration a priority in his office, creating the Illegal Immigration Interdiction Unit. At its conception the III Unit only had two officers, but it quickly grew and soon the majority of the sheriff’s resources were allocated to arresting undocumented immigrants.

In a 2007 press conference, Arpaio announced the beginning of a new era. "My program, my philosophy is a pure program. You go after illegals. I’m not afraid to say that. And you go after them and you lock them up".

The sheriff was responding to a reactionary wave in Arizona against immigrants and demographic change. Maricopa had experienced an increase in population from 2.1 million in 1990 to 3.7 million in 2010. Over that period, Hispanics went from making up 16 per cent of the population to about 32 per cent.

The state legislature saw a flurry of bills and rhetoric against illegal immigration. Many civilians perceived Hispanics as a problematic community dependent on public spending and prone to crime.

It didn't matter that studies show that immigrants have a net positive effect on the economy and actually commit fewer crimes than Americans. As in California in the previous decade, rapid demographic change was a perfect breeding ground for demagogic politicians.

The beginning of the end

Arpaio's immigration abuses during those years proved to be his downfall. Little by little, the pressure from activists and increasing media attention eroded the sheriff’s popularity.

A series of reports in the East Valley Tribune won a Pulitzer after exposing how Arpaio’s focus on immigration had led to abandon the investigation of other crimes, including sexual abuse cases.

On the legal front, Arpaio’s practices of requesting immigration documents at traffic stops, were deemed unconstitutional. In a case about Arizona law SB1070, the Supreme Court decided that the driver must have committed some sort infraction before being pulled over.

Arpaio disobeyed a U.S. judge, even coming to boast across national media, including Univision, how he would not abandon his practices.

On July 31, U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton condemned Arpaio for disobeying another U.S. District Judge, Murray Snow, who had ordered Arpaio to stop pulling over drivers merely for being Hispanic.

Although he will never apologize, Arpaio insisted in his interview with Univision News that he is not a racist. He likes to point out he's well-travelled. As a former DEA agent he worked in Turkey, Mexico and Argentina.

"Everytime I know a foreigner, I love to talk to them because I can talk about international things. I’ve been to so many places. I just love it,” says Arpaio.

“Arpaio is not a racist, he's an egotist,” says Chuck Coughlin, president of the political consultant firm Arizona HighGround. “It was always about him, not about public service or serving a higher purpose.”

Although Arpaio says he still has fans, even many Arizona Republicans have grown tired of him. Only 63.3 per cent of Republicans in Arizona support Trump’s pardoning, according to a poll taken by Highground only days before the announcement was made. Notable figures in the state, like senators Jeff Flake and John McCain, disapprove of the presidential pardon.

Unsatisfied with Trump’s pardoning, the former sheriff wishes to cleanse his image and has asked the judge who condemned him, Susan Bolton, to erase his previous record. The judge has said she must first hear what prosecutors have to say on the matter and has announced a meeting on Oct 4.

His victims feel defrauded, but they find solace in the certainty that history will put Arpaio in his place. Now, activists are focussing on helping the young undocumented dreamers as, only days after the official pardoning, president Trump ended the DACA program.

“In Arizona we already knew what the country would look like if Trump won the presidency,” says Viridiana Hernandez from Arizona’s LUCHA group.

“His reputation has been stained and he will be remembered as a criminal,” says activist Lydia Guzman. “Despite all, we won.”

Dan Magos approached Arpaio during a hearing days before the sentencing in July. Magos had attended all the hearings in Arpaio's racial profiling case, but had never said a word to him.

Putting aside a "feeling of disgust,” he seized the opportunity during a recess. They spoke for three minutes. At the end Magos said; "Let me tell you something, I’m not going to wish you good luck."

Arpaio laughed, recalls Magos.

“It helped me feel free, free of the resentment I had built up," he said.

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RELACIONADOS:ImmigrationJoe ArpaioDonald Trump