‘Climate of Violence’ Leads to Death in Texas Desert
The first shot struck near his right foot, kicking up a spray of dirt as Javier Sanchez ran for his life through a thicket of cedar and sage. When the second shot rang out, he looked back to see his companion fall.
Sanchez took cover in the brush. The old man with the gun lit a pipe and sat down for a smoke. A few hundred feet from where Sanchez hid, Eusebio de Haro lay bleeding in a clump of cactus--shrieking in pain, pleading for water.
Water was all they had wanted in the first place.
According to investigators and the story Sanchez recounted for lawyers, he and De Haro had hiked nearly two days to this isolated homestead 45 miles north of the border. The day before had been 105 degrees. Although the temperature had dipped, the men were tired and thirsty, their water jugs almost empty.
“Excuse me, please,” Sanchez had called out to the house trailer, an oasis in this arid patch of South Texas range. A woman came to the door. And in his best English, Sanchez implored: “Could we get some water?”
But the woman refused. Instead, she cried out to her husband: “Call the Border Patrol!”
Sanchez and De Haro took off down the road; the couple followed in their truck. When they spotted the two men, they got out and ordered them to sit tight; the Border Patrol was on its way.
That’s when Sanchez spotted the gun and fled.
Hiding now in the brush, Sanchez saw the woman approach De Haro, who begged for help. She suggested he stick his finger in the bullet hole to stop the bleeding, Sanchez said.
Five minutes passed. Ten. Twenty. Finally, De Haro fell silent.
Sanchez crept away. The next day, when he turned himself in, authorities confirmed what he’d known in his heart: In that clump of Texas cactus, Eusebio de Haro had bled to death.
The shooter claimed self-defense, but authorities dismiss that. De Haro, they note, was shot in the back of the leg as he ran.
Investigators call the slaying of De Haro on May 13 an isolated incident in a region where landowners are so used to illegal immigrants they sometimes leave water out so their livestock tanks aren’t drained.
Isolated, even though De Haro was the third immigrant shot by South Texas residents since November. One of them, a 16-year-old boy, also died, and the shooter was charged with murder.
Isolated, even though seven white youths are accused of beating and using a pellet gun to wound five elderly migrant workers last month in San Diego.
To immigrant-rights advocates, De Haro’s death was yet another example of how treacherous the journey north has become. On top of the usual risks of extreme temperatures, drowning and unscrupulous smugglers, migrants face a growing threat of vigilantism.
“There’s a climate of violence that’s being created by the presence of armed agents, infrared sensors, helicopters with night-vision scopes and guns--a real sense from the U.S. government that there’s actually a war being waged,” says Sasha Khokha of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. “It’s very easy, then, to imagine immigrants as the enemy.”
About 8,270 Border Patrol agents stand guard over the 2,000-mile boundary between the United States and Mexico. That’s a 122% increase from six years ago, when the government announced a plan to block traditional crossing routes.
Droves of agents and equipment were shipped to the most popular immigration corridors: El Paso; San Diego; Nogales, Ariz.; and Brownsville, Texas. While traffic dropped in those areas, it increased in more remote places such as El Centro, Calif.; Douglas, Ariz.; and Del Rio, Texas--places not only more dangerous because of their rugged landscapes but also not used to the onslaught of illegal crossers.
In Douglas, the Border Patrol apprehended an average of 147 immigrants daily in 1995. That’s risen to 729 people daily, and Douglas is now the nation’s busiest illegal crossing route. Empty water jugs litter ranches; fences have been cut and cattle slaughtered for food.
Since October, the Border Patrol has documented 32 cases of Arizona residents detaining illegal crossers, sometimes at gunpoint.
“When I see ‘em on my place, you betcha I round ‘em up and call the Border Patrol,” says Roger Barnett, who patrols his 22,000-acre cattle ranch in Douglas with a sidearm. Barnett alone has detained more than 1,000 immigrants in the last year.
In Arizona, citizens can detain trespassers but may not point guns or use force unless they fear for their lives. No Arizona ranchers have faced charges for holding immigrants, local law officers say. Even when a rancher allegedly pointed his gun, the migrants declined to press charges.
The law varies from state to state, however. In Texas, such detentions could be considered false imprisonment, says Jim Harrington of the Texas Civil Rights Project. Citizens “can call the Border Patrol if they want, but to take the law into their own hands is just part of this old cowboy mentality.”
David Aguilar, a 22-year Border Patrol veteran who supervises most of the Arizona border, bristles at claims that the government’s strategy has contributed to confrontations. He says sporadic violence between residents and migrants is inherent on the border.
Border residents aren’t the only ones turning to arms. People-smugglers and some migrants have begun carrying weapons too, says John Keeley of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C.
More migrants died crossing the border in the first nine months of this fiscal year than in all of last year: 239 compared with 230, according to Border Patrol statistics. Most were heat-related deaths or drownings, but 14 are suspected homicides. The agency recorded no homicides the previous year.
Cases under investigation include two in which immigration officers shot migrants who allegedly assaulted them, as well as the killing of De Haro.
A Fateful Return
“I’m going to take a swing up north,” De Haro told his father a year ago April.
He was 22, the eldest of 14 kids in a family that worked hard to get by. As a boy, when drought didn’t ravage the crop, he helped harvest corn on his family’s ranch in the central Mexican town of San Felipe. He pitched in, too, at his dad’s fireworks shop.
But De Haro dreamed of a better life across the border.
“When he told me he wanted to go, I didn’t even argue,” says his father, Paciano de Haro Bueno. “You earn as much up there in an hour as you do here in a week.”
Near Dallas, De Haro found a job making cabinets, earning $8 an hour. He sent money home and to the mother of his infant daughter in Kerrville, Texas, where he had worked in construction. Whenever he called home, his siblings would stand in line--oldest to youngest--for the news from up north.
In January, De Haro’s family spoke with him for the last time. Sometime after, he was deported from the United States and made the fateful decision to return.
By the time the sheriff and paramedics arrived at the shooting scene in Brackettville, De Haro was dead. Blood soaked the dirt beneath him. Cactus thorns protruded from his right cheek and shoulder. Cans of tuna fish, green beans and cola, which he’d clutched when he fled, were scattered on the ground. In his pockets were two disposable razors, some papers, 53 American cents and a couple of Mexican coins.
The autopsy confirmed De Haro was shot from behind. The bullet went though his left thigh, severing an artery.
Samuel Blackwood, a 75-year-old retiree from Arkansas, was initially charged with murder but later indicted on a downgraded charge of deadly conduct. He is free on bond while awaiting trial. His wife, Brenda, was not charged.
Neither Blackwood nor his attorney returned messages, but Kinney County Sheriff L.K. “Buddy” Burgess says the Blackwoods claimed the shooting was self-defense.
A $15-million wrongful-death lawsuit has been filed against the Blackwoods by De Haro’s parents. George Shaffer, a lawyer investigating the case on the De Haro family’s behalf, hopes to make an example of the Blackwoods.
“The fact that someone is here illegally,” he says, “does not give you license to shoot them.”
On July 31, the Border Patrol held a town hall meeting in Brackettville--part of a program that was in the works before De Haro died and became more relevant afterward. The Del Rio Border Patrol sector, which includes Brackettville, anticipates it will become the next immigration hot spot.
“Once Arizona’s under control, you’re still going to have 1 1/2 million people trying to go through, and they’ve got to go somewhere,” says Carlton Jones, sector spokesman. The town hall meetings, he says, are meant to get agents and ranchers talking before any onslaught begins.
In Arizona, the Border Patrol has beefed up a special ranch response unit, and Aguilar says there have been no reports of ranchers detaining immigrants since May.
However, a Texas group is calling for armed volunteers to head to Arizona this fall. There, they’ll help ranchers repair damage caused by trespassing immigrants.
And, if necessary, detain them.