Fearing for My Life During a Traffic Stop: Rising Police Violence in the Borderlands

by Ankur Singh, Truthout | 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 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.

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Reprinted with permission from Truthout