On May 11, a rancher in Hudspeth County shot two men, a father and son, whom he alleges were trespassing. The victims explained they took a wrong turn onto a dirt road when they were confronted by the rancher, who, without warning, started shooting in to their vehicle. The victims also say they were unarmed. We recognize facts are still coming to light, and as such, call for a thorough investigation into the events of that day. For now, it is impossible not to wonder whether this incident is a consequence of the increasingly charged atmosphere created by exaggerated and irresponsible descriptions of border violence by elected officials at every level of government.
In fact, Hudspeth County’s Sheriff Arvin West has not been shy about promoting sensationalized messages. At a town hall meeting in April, Sheriff West called on residents to “arm themselves,” because it is “better to be tried by twelve than carried by six.” Sheriff West has long perpetuated an irresponsible myth about rampant spillover violence on the border, even though crime statistics prove otherwise. In 2006, West told a Congressional panel that it wouldn’t be long before drug cartels planted explosives on their drug loads to guard against seizure by law enforcement. He also told lawmakers that he was concerned that terrorists from the Middle East are working with drug cartels to kill U.S. law enforcement officials. Sheriff West never substantiated any of these wild accusations, nor have we seen any of his dire predictions come true.
The facts tell a very different story. In the past four years, marijuana seizures have fallen 97 percent in Hudspeth County, and according to the most recent FBI crime statistics report, the number of crimes has been cut in half from 48 to 24 over the same period. Nor is Hudspeth County an anomaly. The FBI reports that over the past two decades violent crime has dropped 30 percent in border counties, ranking them among the safest in the nation. Yet, just last month, Sheriff West appeared on Fox News, falsely claiming that the situation “hasn’t improved in the past four years.”
At this point, it’s not clear that Sheriff West’s fear-mongering actually inspired the May 11 shootings, but this incident should serve as a reminder of the real risks involved in politicizing the issue of border enforcement. Human and drug trafficking are serious problems and they demand to be addressed in a serious and honest manner. To accomplish this, we need to look to our own best natures, not turn against one another in fits of paranoia and distrust.
Thus, we call on Sheriff West to be more responsible and honest in his characterization of the border region, so as not to create a charged atmosphere in which residents shoot first and ask questions later. Our country is a nation of laws, and we should never allow vigilantes to mete out justice at the end of a gun barrel.
We also call on the media and public officials not to perpetuate harmful myths and made-up horror stories about the border region. In reality, despite the drug-related violence that plagues our Southern neighbors, El Paso and the surrounding communities are among the safest in the country. The border is our home, and we must hold people accountable when they don’t tell the truth about it.
Tania M. Chozet, an El Paso native and current resident, is the policy advocate for the ACLU of New Mexico Regional Center for Border Rights.
Learn more about the ACLU-NM Regional Center for Border Rights.