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Saturday, 6 May 2000

Vigilantes on border irk Mexico

By Tim Steller and Ignacio Ibarra ARIZONA DAILY STAR

The head of Mexico's immigration agency flew to Arizona's border yesterday to criticize vigilantism by Cochise County ranchers as well as the U.S. government's failure to stop it.

Jose Angel Pescador Osuna became the latest in a series of Mexican and American officials raising their voices against detentions of illegal border-crossers by rural landowners.

But the officials' escalating complaints appear to reflect a growing fear of future vigilante acts more than actual events.

"What we have to do is put a stop to it immediately so that it does not continue and so that anti-immigrant groups cannot take advantage of it," Pescador said in Agua Prieta yesterday.

Indeed, ranch owner and businessman Roger Barnett - who is the focus of the officials' attention along with his brother Don - said their practice of detaining illegal entrants has not changed much in more than two years.

In that time he and family members have detained up to 3,000 illegal entrants on or near their ranch and turned them over to the Border Patrol, he said. A few other Cochise County landowners have also retained migrants this year and last.

But an unsigned pamphlet came to light April 20 inviting outsiders to patrol for "trespassers" on Cochise County lands. That pamphlet - and the interpretations of it in the Mexican press - transformed the Mexican officials' attitudes from a simmering concern to boiling outrage.

Mexican newspapers call the pamphlet an invitation to "cacería," or hunting, of their countrymen. When Barnett detained a group of illegal entrants Wednesday, the headline in the Sonoran newspaper El Imparcial read: "Nine migrants are hunted."

With Mexicans seeing it as human hunting, official protests reached full pitch.

This week, Mexican Foreign Secretary Rosario Green complained about the detentions by the Barnetts and others, calling them racist. Green also announced the Mexican government is researching the possibility of suing the Barnetts, or others who have detained illegal entrants.

American officials joined the protests, too. After a meeting with Mexican officials, Deputy U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder chimed in with an objection to the detentions. U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Jeffrey Davidow did too, saying the ranchers reflect a "Three Stooges" mentality.

Yesterday, Pescador and Sonoran Gov. Armando Lopez Nogales urged U.S. authorities to move quickly to stifle the actions of those who would take the law into their own hands. They decried the escalation of the situation and the effort to attract people to Cochise County to join in "hunting" undocumented migrants.

Pescador said that despite a series of consultations, U.S. authorities have yet to take concrete steps to stop the detention of Mexicans by the Barnetts and other U.S. citizens. Instead, he complained, the incidents continue and there is the growing threat they could escalate with serious consequences.

"Reason and common sense must prevail," he said.

But some have questioned whether references to the hunting of illegal entrants are unreasonable. The U.S. Consul in Hermosillo, Sonora was quoted in El Imparcial Thursday saying the alarm over detentions "frankly, is very exaggerated."

Consul Ronald Kramer declined additional comment yesterday.

The chief of the U.S. Border Patrol's Tucson Sector opposes the detentions of illegal entrants by private citizens, but said he has heard nothing to foreshadow human "hunting."

"I've not heard this word used by our ranchers, our citizens out there, or our law enforcement," David Aguilar said. "I don't know where this arose from."

Mexican Consul Roberto Rodriguez Hernandez said the electric word "cacería" does not necessarily refer to the armed pursuit of border-crossers, although the Barnetts typically have been armed when they patrol their properties. The word can refer to simply "capturing" people, he said.

But that's not how Ana Perches, a lecturer in Spanish at the University of Arizona, sees the word. Perches, who is Mexican, said the word cacería "definitely refers to a gun."

"I think of cazar (to hunt), I think of a gun," she said.

While there is no reference to hunting illegal entrants in the brochure, it does call on travelers to "help keep trespassers from destroying private property."

The brochure recommends travelers bring radios, spotlights, signal flares, sirens, infrared scopes, video cameras and trip wires for flare launchers that will be set up on paths used by "lawbreaking trespassers."

But it doesn't mention guns, and it says the point of catching these people is to report them to the local sheriff's department as trespassers.

Rodriguez, the Mexican consul, said the fact that guns aren't mentioned doesn't mean the situation might not descend into vigilante violence.

"We know where these things begin but not where they end," Rodriguez said. "We don't want the situation to degenerate to a point that we're all going to regret."

The Barnetts' detentions did change early this year when they twice pulled over vehicles carrying migrants on public roads. The Barnetts cannot say those stops were in defense of private property, Rodriguez said.

But he added, "We don't want to polarize this situation. Violence creates more violence. A civil action creates more civil actions."

Pescador acknowledged some Mexican responsibility for record illegal immigration and said comprehensive solutions are needed. A guest worker program, such as the one proposed by Douglas Mayor Ray Borane and Arizona Gov. Jane Hull, may be a a way to turn undocumented workers into documented workers, Pescador said.

He added that local law enforcement should find ways of preventing people from crossing the border in areas that would take them through the Barnetts' Cross Rail Ranch east of Douglas. He also suggested that U.S. authorities assist them in identifying migration corridors that were least likely to take migrants through private land.

"Just as we warn people about snakes, just as we warn people about the grand canal, just as we warn about low temperatures, we have to warn also of the threat that some U.S. citizens represent," Pescador said.

While fear has created some of the recent tension, news media attention has also added to the atmosphere by creating more detentions. On Wednesday, the Barnetts, both armed, detained nine illegal entrants while in the company of an ABC camera crew, and held them for the Border Patrol. Usually they restrict their patrols to weekends.

"I'm out there every weekend to see what damage has been done, to see what's taking place on my property ... and to see if the Border Patrol has stopped it. And no, they haven't," Roger Barnett said.

Barnett said he must protect his property and livelihood from what he calls an invasion by Mexican migrants.

But Barnett said he doesn't expect Mexican officials or the Mexican media to understand, or even to care what he has to say.

He said he's not worried about criminal prosecution by U.S. authorities because he's done nothing wrong. And he's certainly not worried about the threats by the Mexican government to sue him in civil court.

"If they sue, that's the breaks. With anything you do there are going to be repercussions," he said. "I'm not going to stop what I'm doing. That would be like admitting defeat."

Reporters Tim Steller and Ignacio Ibarra can be reached at 434-4086 or (520) 432-2766; or e-mail or