From behind the glass partition in Yuba County Jail's basement visiting room, Ramiro Hernandez Farias speaks matter-of-factly about the incredible ordeal to which he has been subjected by both Mexican drug cartel paramilitaries and the Mendocino County branch of the US drug war.
Farias, 28, has never been charged with a crime. Yet, for more than six months, he has been confined within a prison cage in the small, economically depressed town of Marysville, on the northern end of California's Central Valley. He finally departs on February 14th, only to attend a hearing in San Francisco where an immigration judge will determine if he is allowed to remain in the United States – or whether he must return to his native Mexico. If he's sent back, he will likely be tortured and killed by one of the country's most violent drug cartels, La Familia Michoacán.
While reciting the events that have led to his harrowing predicament, Farias' otherwise calm and measured voice becomes tinged with sadness, perhaps also some resignation, as he discusses the fate of his wife, Flor, and their six-year-old son, Eric.
“I think all the time about my family,” he says through an interpreter. “They're suffering a lot economically, and also emotionally because of the distance between us.”
Until this past July 21st, the family lived together in a small Ukiah home off of South State St. Flor, a US citizen, attended classes at Mendocino College and looked after the couple's domestic life, including raising Erik. Ramiro put in long hours as a landscaper and laborer for Saul's Vineyard Contracting of Ukiah, as well as for Rosewood Vineyards in Redwood Valley, owned for more than a quarter century by Tia and Troy Satterwhite. His former bosses have praised his hard work and friendly disposition, with the Satterwhites calling him “pleasant to be around and more than willing to lend a hand if you needed one.”
In a tragic irony, Farias was arrested as part of “Operation Full Court Press,” the much-ballyhooed regional program targeting large-scale marijuana cultivation on public lands, the main target ostensibly being Mexican drug cartels. Yet, Farias has also gone remarkably far out of his way to avoid associating with the cartels, having fled to the US when La Familia's forerunner, Los Zetas, invaded his hometown of Tumbiscatio, Michoacán in 2003-04. What is more, he was not involved in marijuana cultivation whatsoever at the time of his arrest.
Farias' crime was simply being an undocumented person in the wrong place at the wrong time, caught in the nexus between the US' vast drug war and its growing criminalization of undocumented people, Latinos in particular.
Farias comes from a large, tight-knit family in which he is the oldest surviving male – on both his and his wife's side. Most of the family now lives in Ukiah, with some members living in Los Angeles. On this particular day, Farias accompanied his sister Antonia, 21, and her husband, Galdino, 24, on a day trip. It was Antonia's lone day-off from her six-day-a-week work schedule in Santa Rosa. Being that she was seven months pregnant, Antonia was seeking some much-needed exercise and stress relief.
Farias decided to accompany his sister on a daytrip to the chaparral-covered slopes of Cow Mountain Recreation Area, the sprawling recreational expanse that stretches out high above Ukiah to its west and Clear Lake to its east.
Cow Mountain resides on a large tract of BLM land, which made it a heavily patrolled area during Full Court Press. It seems that many of the federal agents involved were not on the hunt for pot grows per se, however, but rather for virtually anyone they could find with brown skin. While Farias and his family were enjoying their hike, a BLM agent was closely studying who was traversing the roads leading to the facility, his attentive gaze matched by that of an ICE agent riding shotgun.
Antonia recalls that quite a few people hanging out on Cow Mountain that day, but no other Latinos. As soon as they drove past the ranger's vehicle, the siren lights went on and they were pulled over. The BLM ranger explained that the small decorative item hanging from the rearview mirror constituted a traffic violation, being that it obstructed the driver's view. It was precisely the sort of petty traffic stop pretext with which countless Latino drivers are all too familiar, which some of them translate into the catch-all term DWB -- Driving While Brown.
After asking to see Galdino's driver’s license, the ranger wasted no time in asking everyone if they are legal US residents. Farias volunteered that he was not. Before long, the feds had cuffed him and sat him down on the ground, to the side of the vehicle in which he was a passenger.
“I thought that nothing was going to happen, because there was no reason for anything to happen – we were doing nothing wrong,” he recalls. That was before he realized the man accompanying the ranger was part of ICE. “I began to think that probably I was going to have problems, and possibly have to return to my country.”
At that point, the ICE agent started asking Farias about his family. He asked if Farias' wife was in the country legally, whether she was working. There were other questions about his wife and son, clearly implying that some harm may befall them if Farias didn't cooperate.
“I got very worried thinking about what will happen to my family, because they're dependent on me,” Farias says.
The traffic stop persisted for an hour and a half. During most of that time, the feds' interrogation targeted Antonia and Galdino.
“They were asking me in front of my husband if [Ramiro and Galdino] were doing anything illegal,” says Antonia, who speaks English fluently and has recently become a legally-recognized US resident. “Then when I said they weren't, they took me into their car and one guy was asking me the same things a bunch of times again to try to make me say they were. They tried to make me tell them that they were doing something illegal there, but they weren't. Even when I said they weren't, [the agents] tried to make me say they were.”
Finally, they let the married couple go, but not before the ICE agent threatened Antonia that he would see her “soon.” They said they could have taken me too, but I was pregnant at that time,” she says. “I was in the process of getting my residence then.” The traumatic incident has left her afraid to go out in public for fear of further harassment by immigration authorities and local police.
Farias was taken to Mendocino County Jail in Ukiah, where he remained for four days. Three more ICE agents met him at the jail. During his first two days there, he was interrogated three different times.
Most of their questions focused on marijuana. Could he tell them about his involvement in marijuana growing? Can he give them the names of growers he's worked with? In not so many words, the ICE agent offered to allow him to stay in the country if he provided the information they sought.
“I didn't have any of that information, so I couldn't give it to them,” Farias notes.
Initially, he was detained in a room with seven other people, five of whom he recalls as being undocumented Latinos. Two of them were also interrogated by ICE about marijuana cultivation. In his final two days in Ukiah, he was moved to the isolation of his own cell. On the morning of the 25th, he was driven to ICE's detention facility in San Francisco, which has as its stated purpose making “certain through the enforcement of U.S. immigration laws that all removable aliens depart the United States.”
As an immigrant justice advocate with Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice quipped, “'Removable aliens'! Is that anything like removable tape? So handy!”
At various points, Farias' interrogators asked him to sign legal documents written in English, which most likely contained pledges to go back to Mexico and never return to the US. He says he refused to sign them without seeing a judge and attorney first. He soon found himself on a van headed to Oakland along with 15 other so-called “removable aliens,” then on another bus up to the jail in Yuba County, which has a contract with ICE to house roughly 150 immigrants at a given time.
Unfortunately for Farias, he was deported once before, in 2004, while attempting to cross the border in Arizona. That means the government doesn't have to place him before an immigration judge. Rather, they can reinstate the previous judge's removal order, then ship him back without letting him see a judge. The only difference in his case was that an ICE asylum officer ruled that he does, in fact, have a reasonable fear of being tortured by the La Familia cartel. His fate will be determined on Feb. 14, at a hearing on Withholding of Removal and Convention Against Torture in San Francisco.
Full Court Press' Main Target – Growers or Immigrants?
“Operation Full Court Press” rolled into action during three weeks this past July and August, executed by platoons of sheriff's deputies, DEA agents, BLM rangers, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers, and 23 other local, state and federal agencies. They descended on the so-called Emerald Hexagon” -- Colusa, Glenn, Lake, Mendocino, Tehama and Trinity Counties – with the stated objective of eradicating large marijuana grows on public lands. In this relatively brief period, the more than 400 law enforcement personnel involved destroyed more than 400,000 cannabis plants and arrested around 150 people.
Many public officials labeled the operation a straightforward effort to combat drug cartels, particularly federal officials. Sheriff Tom Allman and other local architects of the program have stopped short of making those claims. Allman has framed the matter in more provincial terms, albeit admirable ones: “Are public lands public, or have they been turned into private lands because the rest of us are too afraid to go there?” he asked at a meeting of Garberville's Rotary Luncheon this past September.
Another widely supported goal of the program was to undo the vast environmental harm the grows are causing, including the removal of 12 river dams at various grow sites (the biggest and most harmful dams, such as those erected by the Army Corps of Engineers, of course being politically untouchable).
But many of the other agencies involved assume they were fighting drug cartels. To take only one example, in an October 5th press release, the Sacramento Air Unit of the San Diego Air and Marine branch of US Border Patrol – which customarily patrols the border via elaborate choppers – straightforwardly announced that Full Court Press' purpose was to combat “a vast network of clandestine marijuana gardens that were being cultivated on behalf of Mexican drug trafficking organizations.”
The extent to which Mexican nationals truly control the public lands grows in Mendo and surrounding counties remains an open question. Full Court Press arrest data that has come to light has been confusing and contradictory. Initially, it was announced that 132 people had been arrested as part of the program, of whom only 14 were foreign nationals. Presumably, most of the rest were white caucasians. Later, Ronald Brooks of the Drug Enforcement Agency reported virtually the opposite: of 131 suspects arrested during the operation, all but 11 were foreign nationals.
The latter data appears to be closer to the truth. The Anderson Valley Advertiser is conducting its own analysis of Operation Full Court Press arrest statistics, though we have only obtained information concerning cases under the jurisdiction of the Eastern District of California in Sacramento as of this writing. Out of 29 Operation Full Court Press cases there, 12 involve individuals charged with various marijuana cultivation offenses. All of these individuals have Hispanic surnames.
The other 17 defendants have been charged with immigration violations. It is not clear how many in the latter group were involved in marijuana cultivation, or whether they were simply detained by virtue of being an undocumented person in the wrong place at the wrong time, as with Farias. We intend to finish compiling the arrest data in time for next week's issue.
Clearly, though, the combination of ICE's involvement and most other agencies' explicit targeting of Mexican cartels has led to intensive racial profiling, and thus to lengthy detentions of people merely for being undocumented. In addition to Farias, the AVA is currently aware – based on extremely limited information – of two other long-time Mendocino County residents arrested during Operation Full Court, but who are not demonstrably involved in marijuana cultivation.
One of these, Victor Palominos Aparicio of Ukiah, was deported to Mexico at the end of January. Another, Ruben Leon has been held without charges since his arrest, as with Farias.
Amazingly, ICE's stated policy not to issue detainers except in cases involving criminal activity. A draft of ICE's immigrant detention policy dated September 23, 2009 states that “immigration officers shall issue detainers [i.e., arrest undocumented people] only after a [local law enforcement agency] has exercised its independent authority to arrest the alien for a criminal violation.”
Yet, in glaring contradiction to policy, roughly 40 percent of the approximately 32,000 people housed at any given time in US immigration detention facilities in the US have not been charged with a crime. Although ICE claims to target violent criminals and sex offenders only, just one third of those it has detained have been convicted of felonies.
Emily Tucker, director of policy and advocacy at Detention Watch based in Washington, DC., notes that ICE's written policy and de facto policy are often entirely different.“There are two separate issues: ICE's stated priority of deporting quote-unquote 'criminals,' and then there's how someone comes to ICE's attention in the first place,” she says. “ICE officers in field not living up to immigration priorities.
She adds, “They're also relying increasingly on local law enforcement, and we know there is terrible racial profiling happening across the country. Police stop people ostensibly for a traffic violation, then use that as a pretense to investigate someone's immigration status.”
While the Obama administration has announced immigration reform as a part of its domestic policy agenda, it nevertheless set a new record for deportations in a single year in 2011, removing nearly 400,000 undocumented immigrants according to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement data.
Because they are not permitted public attorneys, people in Farias' predicament must rely on lawyers willing to work pro bono, or else they receive no representation at all. One tireless attorney who represents several undocumented people at a given time is Rick Coshnear of Santa Rosa, a member of the Committee for Immigrant Rights of Sonoma County who even conducted a well-publicized hunger strike last year to demand that Sonoma County – where local police refer arrestees to ICE to a vastly disproportionate extent – end its collaboration with federal immigration authorities, except in cases involving major crimes.
Coshnear is attempting to demonstrate that Farias merits political asylum under the International Convention Against Torture. It is an uphill battle, however. It is exceptionally rare for Mexican immigrants who have been targeted by cartels to receive asylum status.
To receive asylum, an individual has to show not only fear of persecution, but that is based on one of five protected grounds: race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. There are a lot of people who can show a reasonable fear of torture and violence in Mexico, but they can't show that it would be based on those criteria.
The ICE asylum officer who interviewed Farias did note in a written statement that “[Farias] presented testimony that was believable, consistent, and sufficiently detailed. Therefore, he was found to be credible,” even though the officer did not find that Farias reasonable fear was on one of the five protected grounds.
As part of the defense, Coshnear has solicited letters of support from various people who have close knowledge of Farias' character or of his detention's impact on his family. One of these, Cristina Cruz, is a primary care counselor at Mendocino Community Health Clinic in Ukiah. She explained in a letter to immigration authorities dated December 22, 2011,
“[Farias' son] Erik has been able to be in touch with his father through telephone calls; however, Erik misses him terribly and continues to beg him to come back home. Mrs. Lopez reported Erik was having a hard time concentrating at school and had a sad demeanor... Children tend to blame themselves for their parents' acts. Erik associated doing something bad that pushed his father to leave him... The lasting psychological trauma such as loss of interest, inability to concentrate, and sadness, typical of depression, impair Erik's ability to function socially, academically, and personally.”
Coshnear notes that he is handling more and more drug cartel cases. “For me, it's a minority of cases, but it's growing as the cartels in Mexico become more and more dominant in Mexican life.”
In looking at Farias' harrowing history involving drug cartels, it helps to take a step back. If Mexican drug cartels are now prominent in Mendocino County's cannabis industry, how did they gain their foothold here? How, in fact, did they become so dominant in Mexico?
While there is a border between the US and Mexico, the drug wars in the two nations are entirely connected – a fact highlighted tragically in Ramiro Hernandez Farias' case. As an example, La Familia Michoacán is a splinter organization of the more widely known Los Zetas organization, which was largely a creation of the Reagan-era Latin American counter-insurgency campaigns of the '80s.
As of the mid-1980s, Mexico was home to a small national distribution for marijuana and heroin. The role of drug violence in Mexican life was relatively small. At around that time, the US acted to shut off the flow of cocaine from Colombia and Peru into Miami. Given Mexico's 2,000-mile border with the United States, the drug trafficking syndicates responded by relocating their transportation hubs there, making for a greatly improved flow of illicit substances to El Norte.
The Reagan administration at the same time was dead-set on exporting its moralistic notion of combating the drug trade through military means. Mexico initiated its own drug war, in large part as a way of catering to US demands. If the point of this program was, in fact, actually to halt drug trafficking, it backfired in spectacular fashion. One of Mexico's first drug czars, José de Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, was convicted while still in office of aiding the drug lord Amado Carrillo Fuentes.
Meanwhile, the US' infamous School of the Americas counter-insurgency training facility at Fort Benning, GA, trained an elite commando unit of 31 individuals to locate and apprehend drug dealers. Their main target was supposed to be the infamous Gulf Cartel led by Cardenas Osiel, who bought the entire commando group wholesale – all 30 of them. Thus, the US-trained anti-narcotics specialists became the backbone of Los Zetas, long considered Mexico's most violent cartel and enforcement group.
La Familia Michoacán, the organization that targeted Ramiro Hernandez Farias' family, and which may now target Farias again if he is shipped back to Mexico, is a splinter group of Los Zetas. It first gained national attention in September 2006, when some of its members stepped into a crowded nightclub and rolled five severed heads onto the dance floor.
Following is a letter from Ramiro Hernandez Farias' older sister, Maria, 41, who also lives in Ukiah, to the immigration authorities who oversee her brother's case:
I, Maria Hernandez, am writing this letter on behalf of my brother, Ramiro Hernandez. I beg that my brother not be deported to Mexico since my entire family and I have been directly threatened by the gang known as “Zetas” who dominate the state of Michoacán.
We are originally from the small town of Tumbiscatio, Michoacan. However, we can no longer return to our home town because as of July of 2005 the “Zetas” began their reign of terror. It was at this time when rumors began to circulate that the gang began to threaten, kidnap, and kill people in other small towns in our area. Then in August 2005 at around 12:00 p.m. we saw approximately 35 trucks full of armored men coming towards our town. However, only ten entered into our town and began to terrorize us. The other trucks went to other small towns nearby to commit the same crimes.
They began entering each home pointing their weapons at us, tying us up and covering our mouths. They would scream at the small children who began crying to be quiet. Next to my home I owned a small store. They stole everything. They also took many of our personal belongings. They also stole my 1998 Ford pickup.
My brother, Andres, and his wife, Angelica Rubio, who at the time lived across the street from me suffered the same thing. The Zetas entered their homes, tied them up and threatened them.
This horrible ordeal lasted until approximately 4:00 p.m. I was able to see when the other trucks began to return from the other small towns. I saw one dead body covered up in one of their pickups and I also saw a severely injured person literally trying to hold his intestines in place. They cut him open. He later died from his wounds.
A neighbor of mine, Julian Ortiz, was kidnapped. We thought they were going to kill him. Fortunately, he was found four days later wandering in the mountains, beaten by the Zetas.
We no longer felt safe, we could not sleep. My two sons, Diego, who was 10 years old at the time and Carlos, who was seven years old at the time suffered much trauma. So three days later we decided to leave to Uruapan, Michoacan and we haven't returned since. We left almost everything behind.
At this time we have no family members living in Tumbiscatio because of the threats and trauma that we suffered. The following year, in 2006, my uncle, Hipolito Farias was kidnapped and told that he had to join the Zetas. Since he refused, they released him, but as punishment they cut off three toes from one foot and two from the other foot. Then in March 2011 my brother, Jose, was also kidnapped by the Zeta. We had to pay the ransom for his release.
The Zetas have control of our land. Those neighbors who have braved to stay in Tumbiscatio are always living in fear and have to follow their instructions to stay alive. They cannot complain to the authorities for fear of retaliation and death because many of them work for the Zetas.
It should also be noted that my brother's wife, Flor Jessica Lopez, who used to live in Tumbiscatio has also been impacted by violence. While living in Tumbiscatio her father was murdered in August 2003. The guilty party was never found. The police put no effort into looking for those responsible. So she and her family decided to leave Tumbiscatio for fear that if they stayed they could also have been killed. They have not returned since. My sister-in-law, Flor, fears for her life. Should she be forced to return to Tumbiscatio with her husband, Ramiro, she would suffer emotionally. This would create a great hardship for Ramiro.
Therefore, I beg that my brother, Ramiro, not be deported to Mexico. Please allow him to stay in the United States. I pray that he be shown leniency. I am not saying that he deserves anything but I ask that mercy be shown to my brother and his wife and that he be given the privilege to live in the United States.
Sincerely, Maria Hernandez
ICE Special Agent Jennifer Holman, who supervised the agency's involvement in Operation Full Court Press, did not respond to requests for comment as of press time.
Part II of this story will appear next week. For information on supporting Ramiro Hernandez Farias, e-mail Rick Coshnear at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks to Lucy, Orion, Agustin, and Lucy for their various help with this story.