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Anti-Mexican sentiments persist in Colo. a year after massacre

By Francisco Miraval.

Denver, Jul 1, 2002 (EFE).- The aftermath of the slayings of four Mexican immigrants in Rifle, Colorado, marked the beginning of reconciliation efforts between Hispanics and Anglos in the area, but the improvements have suffered a setback in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, local activists said.

Mario Hernandez, spokesman for the Mexican Consulate in Denver, said the current level of racial tensions could be as bad as before July 2001, when Steven Michael Stagner opened fire in the parking lot of a Rifle supermarket, killing four Mexican immigrants and wounding seven other people.

On the night of July 3, 2001, Stagner killed Angelica Toscano, 19; Juan Hernandez, 44; Melquiades Medrano, 23; and his brother Juan Carlos Medrano, 22.

Stagner, 43, was arrested shortly afterwards, but the case has yet to go to trial because his defense attorneys have claimed he is legally insane and thus not responsible for his actions.

Shortly before committing the massacre, Stagner was released from the Grand Junction veterans hospital, where he had been treated for schizophrenia. In statements to police, Stagner said he was on a mission from the Archangel Michael to liberate the city of foreigners.

Five days after the killings, more than 3,000 demonstrators marched from the supermarket where Stagner gunned down the Mexican immigrants to a rally in downtown Rifle where they condemned the massacre.

Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, Jose Gomez, the auxiliary bishop of Denver, and Mexican Consul in Denver Leticia Calzada Gomez, spoke at the rally, urging both Hispanics and Anglos to remain calm.

"The march, particularly due to the participation of so many non-Hispanic people, served to establish the first bridges of reconciliation, and to define a plan of action to benefit the Hispanic community in western Colorado," Hernandez said.

"The governor, the bishop and the Mexican consul held talks with political and business leaders in the area. We were certain we were on the right path, until Sept. 11 changed the situation," he said.

Last year, the local press published accounts claiming the rapid growth of the Hispanic population in the so-called "Western Slope" area of Colorado was the key factor that led to the slayings.

The area's Hispanic population has quadrupled since 1990, and now represents 16 percent of the total population, with one in four schoolchildren speaking Spanish. But this growth was not well-received by local authorities, nor was it accompanied by an increase in services for Hispanics.

On the contrary, the Aspen City Council's request for a permanent office of the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) was granted, and local officials even asked Congress to intervene to limit the number of Hispanics entering western Colorado.

Also, the lack of bilingual people in the school system, public offices and in the hospitals has complicated the situation for immigrants and limited their access to community services. Although things were improving prior to Sept. 11, now businessmen do not seem to want to hire immigrants and people have begun to talk again about the need to close the border with Mexico.

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