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Rios Montt and Arpaio: Where Impunity Reigns

Sheriff Joe Arpaio. (Photo: Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

In Guatemala, former dictator Rios Montt was first found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity, and then the Supreme Court overturned the verdict. His 80-year sentence was also vacated. A few days later, Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County in Arizona, was slapped down by US District Court Judge Murray Snow. The federal judge ordered him to halt his racial profiling practices, particularly his immigration sweeps that target people of “apparent Mexican ancestry.”

Sometimes there are news items that go together – even when they are apparently unrelated. With Rios Montt, we have one of the biggest human rights violators in the history of humanity, who used the cover of religion to unleash the military against his own people. Arpaio’s face connotes something similar; the unbridled and unapologetic flaunting of raw (state) power and the wanton use of police powers to racially profile and destroy families, with the full backing of an electorate that continues to cheer him on.

To read more articles by Roberto Cintli Rodriguez and other authors in the Public Intellectual Project, click here.

Guatemala has been an apartheid state for generations. The so-called 36-year civil war was one of the most brutal and bloody chapters in modern history, particularly on this continent. It was not so much a war as a scorched-earth campaign of extermination, targeting primarily indigenous peoples (Maya) and anyone that dared to think, to organize or to speak up. More than 200,000 were killed; some 60,000 were disappeared; countless were tortured; and many hundreds of thousands were internally displaced – while many hundreds of thousands fled the country.

That the ex-dictator would be convicted for genocide and crimes against humanity gives us a hint at the level of barbarism committed by a series of US-supported military regimes, actually beginning in 1954, when the military, with CIA assistance, ousted democratically-elected Jacobo Arbenz. And yet, the roots of this apartheid state may be traced not to the 1950s, but to the Spanish invasion itself, 500 years earlier, an invasion that set in motion a colonial regime of dehumanization on both this continent and Africa. Its effects are still clearly visible.

Rios Montt, the face of “death squad democracy,” is part of a long line of ruthless dictators who oppress(ed), brutalize and discriminate against their “own peoples,” particularly the indigenous peoples of the nation. The rulers and those they protect (the white and Ladino ruling elite), see themselves as superior, while ruling over and disempowering the majority of the (indigenous) population.

Enter Arpaio. It took a federal court in May to let the world know what we have always known in Arizona; his modus operandi is the very definition of racial profiling. And yet, he not only racially profiles and terrorizes Mexican and Mexican American peoples and communities, but he also shamelessly flaunts this practice and his brazen ignorance in public, always playing to the national media. The mainstream media, to be sure, feeds him and feeds off of him. A colorful bigot – not seen since the days of Sheriff Bull Conner or Gov. George Wallace – makes for great media quotes and visuals. This is the same sheriff who has no problem cavorting with neo-nazis and the same sheriff who proclaimed on national television that it was an honor (The Lou Dobbs Show in 2007) to be considered part of the KKK.

Instead of being universally denounced, he is propped up as some kind of anti-hero by other elected officials and the mainstream media. The problem, as the 142-page decision clearly delineates, is that he not only openly and willfully defies the US government, but he also defies the courts and the Constitution itself. The attempts to portray him as simply adhering to bad training by ICE, and perhaps senile, belie reality. Throughout his tenure, he, and not his underlings, has been in complete command, with full knowledge that he has been in open defiance of the federal government. When his 287(g) agreement – which permits immigration/law enforcement cooperation – was pulled from his department, with its 160 deputies trained in immigration enforcement, he simply claimed that the state’s flimsy anti-smuggling and employer sanctions laws permitted him to continue with his racial profiling raids and his continual harassment of anyone with an “apparent Mexican ancestry.” The evidence shows that Arpaio’s immigration sweeps, while touting zero tolerance, were highly selective and discriminatory. And during these same sweeps, while “smugglers” were always let go, it was the migrants who were detained.

Perceiving weakness on the part of the Obama administration – which has been busy since 2008, trying to prove it is tough on immigration, deporting more migrants than all previous administrations – Arpaio proceeded to “train” all his 900 deputies in immigration enforcement, permitting them to continue to operate outside of the law by targeting brown people. Much of this targeting has come about as a result of tips by anti-Mexican bigots.

Arpaio represents both impunity and an arrogance of power, believing, as many Arizona politicians do, that they can create their own unconstitutional laws, and obey only the laws they choose to obey.

Arpaio’s enormous media ego is what felled him. Contrary to what he testified in court – about race-neutral policies and practices – it was his interviews and press conferences that provided the context for his war on “illegals” – a war that was/is unquestionably a war against Mexicans. For example, he assumed that being in the country without authorization is a federal crime. It is not. Then, he appears not to understand the definition of racial profiling. For example, he targeted day laborers under the assumption that they are “illegal.” He also assumed that the law permits law enforcement officers to use Mexican appearance as a cause for suspicion and does not appear to understand why that is a problem (The vast majority of people of “Mexican appearance” in Maricopa County are either US citizens or permanent residents.) Then, he assumed that his officers had the inherent authority to enforce immigration laws, even after the federal government voided that authority.

While Arpaio is an unrepentant bigot and a media showboat, ultimately, he is but the creation of the US government, a government that has created inhumane immigration policies that will soon be codified by Congress through “immigration reform.” President Obama’s emphasis has been on the militarization of the border (walls, drones and the National Guard), the mass criminalization of migrants (Operation Streamline, Secure Communities and other federal schemes) and the mass deportation of millions.

What connects Rios Montt and Arpaio? One word: impunity – their belief that they could/can act with impunity. Perhaps there is another connection. No one disputes that the primary victims in Guatemala’s war have been indigenous peoples. In Arizona – the entire country for that matter – the primary targets of immigration enforcement are red-brown peoples. This profile is not Hispanic, but more accurately, indigenous. The more indigenous one is, the more suspect one is, thus the emphasis on the southern border.

And to be sure, this is not about semantics, definitions or mere questions of identity: The victims are real. In Guatemala (including US exiles) hundreds of thousands, even millions, continue to bear the scars of that genocidal war, and the fear of death squads is not unfounded. Beyond the dictator’s high-profile trial, there are many survivors who have yet to have their day in court.

In Arizona, in Arpaio’s war – in the US war against migrants – thousands of migrants end up in private prisons; thousands of migrants wind up dead in the desert and hundreds of thousands of families are needlessly broken up each year.

Rios Montt and Arpaio appear to be two faces of the same coin. Amid the normalization of hate and dehumanization of brown peoples, they both continue to maintain they have done nothing wrong. What if either Rios Mont or Arpaio targeted whites, Jews or African-Americans; would they have been stopped much earlier?

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