June 25, 2017
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Fearing for My Life During a Traffic Stop: Rising Police Violence in the Borderlands

By Ankur Singh | News Analysis


Three cop cars with their sirens blazing were coming fast behind me. It was a dark night in April 2017 in Nogales, Arizona, along the US-Mexico border. The infamous wall was visible from where I was stopped. I am an Indian-American college student who had been living in Nogales for the past few months studying journalism and education. My heart dropped as I pulled over to the side of the road.

"Driver!" a Nogales Police Department (NPD) officer yelled at me through the loud metallic intercom of his vehicle.

I didn't understand what was going on, but I tried to remain calm. I knew I could be shot.

I didn't know how to respond since the officer's statement wasn't really a question or a command, so I just shouted, "Yes?" out the window. In my driver-side mirror, I saw an agent creeping toward my car with his blinding, bright flashlight and gun pointed directly at me. Two more officers stood on the other side of my car with their flashlights and guns drawn, too. I didn't understand what was going on, but I tried to remain calm. I knew I could be shot.

Just a few minutes walk away from where I was pulled over, in October 2012, US Border Patrol agents shot and killed 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez through the wall in Mexico. I thought of this as I sat in my car, surrounded by armed police officers. I had become subject to what Attorney General Jeff Sessions would call a few days later the "Trump era" of immigration enforcement and border security during a visit to Nogales in mid-April. There was an eerie premonition that what happened to Elena Rodriguez would happen with more frequency under a Trump administration poised to fortify the border, as Sessions made quite clear, even more than it already is.

"Turn off your vehicle!" an officer shouted.

I turned it off.

"Show me your hands!" the agent on the driver's side yelled.

I stuck my hands out the window. As the officer on the driver's side got closer he put away his gun, reached his hand through the window to unlock the door and opened it.

"Step out of the vehicle and put your hands up."

As soon as I stood up, the cop grabbed my hands, forced handcuffs on, and walked me to his police car.

A few minutes earlier, I had been pulled over for driving without my headlights on. The officer told me he was going to let me go with a warning and I drove off. I then realized I forgot to wait for the officer to return my license and registration. That day, I had been on a long reporting trip in Mexico and was extremely tired. I slowed down, knowing they would pull me over again, and they did. In the US-Mexico borderlands and to the border enforcement apparatus, what I considered a mistake was interpreted as a blatant act of aggression that resulted in me being detained at gunpoint.

They put me in the back of their police car, which was cramped, with little leg room. The tight, cold metal of the handcuffs felt uncomfortable on my wrists. As the police searched my car, I thought of the countless police shootings that topped news reports over the last few years. I thought about how my parents would react if anything happened to me.

The day after Sessions' Nogales trip, I decided to call the NPD to file a complaint for excessive use of force, but the supervising officer said that there was no policy broken and that they had every right to draw weapons.

"That area is very close to the border. When you took off, the officer had no idea what was going on," the supervising officer said. "It could have been drugs; it could have been illegal aliens."

His justification for the NPD's use of force sounded eerily similar to the comments made by Sessions: "It is also here, along this border, that transnational gangs like MS-13 and international cartels flood our country with drugs and leave death and violence in their wake. And it is here that criminal aliens and the coyotes and the document-forgers seek to overthrow our system of lawful immigration."

Sessions painted a picture in which everyone living in the borderlands [is a] criminal drug [smuggler]. Indeed, that rhetoric has long translated into policy. This was a place where non-citizens, Native Americans, Latinos and Black people were guilty and must be proven innocent. Homeland Security is the only federal department sanctioned by Washington to ethnically profile.

The Trump era will inevitably lead to more instances of excessive use of force by law enforcement in the borderlands as immigrants continue to be criminalized.

Racial Profiling and Police Overreach

The Trump era will inevitably lead to more instances of excessive use of force by law enforcement in the borderlands as immigrants continue to be criminalized. During Sessions' speech, he ordered that federal prosecutors charge undocumented immigrants with a felony (previously a misdemeanor) "if they unlawfully enter or attempt to enter a second time."

Depending on the budget, the next few years will likely see a growth in the militarization of the border through the hiring of additional Border Patrol officers, a larger and taller wall, more motion sensor cameras, surveillance towers and other security infrastructure. This will be on top of an already historic 25-year growth of the border enforcement apparatus, which now has more agents, barriers and technologies at its disposal than at any other time in history. Local police are already, in a way, de facto Border Patrol agents through programs like Operation Stonegarden, which is a federal grant program by the Department of Homeland Security that provides funding to local police on the border for additional personnel, overtime pay and new equipment to help "secure the border" and "prevent terrorism." Through this program, NPD has received millions of dollars to fund communications equipment, infrared sensors and overtime pay. But with more resources, incidents of police overreach and racial profiling become more frequent.

At around 2 am on Saturday, February 25, NPD officers entered a Nogales home without a warrant to investigate what appeared to the police to be an out-of-control bonfire in the backyard. The police busted the lip of 20-year-old Adaly Collelmo with the door as they forced their way inside. Four officers entered the home and Collelmo reached into his pocket to grab his cell phone to film the event, but the agents thought he was pulling out a gun and drew their weapons. The police also tackled Collelmo's 16-year-old cousin to the ground and pointed their weapons at his 7-year-old brother.

"We were all scared," Collelmo told Nogales International. "To be honest, I thought I was going to die when they pointed their guns at my face."

Nogales Police Department officers greet members of the III% United Patriots militia at the Nogales Walmart parking lot in March 2017. (Photo: Arielle Zionts)

Nogales Police Department officers greet members of the III% United Patriots militia at the Nogales Walmart parking lot in March 2017. (Photo: Arielle Zionts)


These events clash sharply with how NPD treats an armed militia group named the III% United Patriots (3UP), which frequently patrols the US-Mexico border near Nogales, armed with military gear and assault rifles. In March 2017, the 3UP were spotted in friendly interaction with the NPD at the Nogales Walmart parking lot while openly carrying their weapons. This event closely resembles another instance captured by journalist Shane Bauer in April 2016 when the armed militia members were guarding their truck in the Walmart parking lot while others were inside buying supplies. 3UP members were approached by NPD and told to put down their weapons. After militia members explained that they act as the "eyes and ears of the Border Patrol," an officer said to them, "It takes balls to do what you guys do out there.... Thank you."

When a group of white men armed with military-grade assault rifles casually stood in a Walmart parking lot three miles from the border, NPD did not assume the militia was there for reasons related to drug trafficking or migration. The police did not draw any weapons or handcuff anyone. The contrast between the easy-going interactions between NPD and an armed militia group and the way NPD treated other Nogales residents and me highlights the extent to which Brown people are criminalized in the US-Mexico borderlands. Add to this the countless incidents of undocumented people chased, beaten and arrested every day by the US Border Patrol, and the thousands of cases of short-term detention abuse from deprivation of food, to ice-cold holding cells, to rude and dehumanizing language -- and a stark line of division emerges between those supported and enabled by law enforcement, and those targeted and traumatized.

After about 10 minutes of searching, an officer walked back to the police vehicle I was detained in and opened the door. They didn't find drugs or migrants in my car. They didn't find any terrorists (indeed, no known person with a terrorist affiliation has ever crossed the border).

"Alright, you can step out. I'm going to take the handcuffs off," the officer said.

I stepped outside and the officer moved behind me.

"Now after I uncuff you, you're not going to come at me or anything, right? You're not going to attack me?"

I thought this question strange, considering that [I'd] been fully cooperating with them this whole time, and that they were the ones with the guns, not me.

"No," I responded.

He uncuffed me, and after searching my backpack, the officers finally let me go with just a written warning to remember to always drive with my headlights on.

Before I finally walked away, the officer said to me, "We're on the border. A lot of stuff goes down and that's why we had guns on you." This statement sounded like an admission of guilt, like he knew their use of force was excessive and this was an attempt to justify it. But proximity to the border has long been enough to justify some of the most egregious acts of violence and cruelty from one group of human beings to another. And in the coming years under the "Trump era," we can only expect there will be more. In the written version of his announcement, Sessions declared, "It is here, on this sliver of land, where we first take our stand against this filth."

The police let me go, handed me my license and registration, and I walked back to my car and drove off, wondering who would be next.


Originally appeared at truth-out.org