Arizona: trial begins against vigilante rancher

A trial started last week in federal court in Tucson against vigilante rancher Roger Barnett, his wife, Barbara, and his brother, Donald—all charged with conspiring to violate the civil rights of undocumented immigrants who crossed through his sprawling property along the Mexican border near Douglas, AZ. Attorneys for the immigrants—five women and 11 men—accuse Barnett of holding the group captive at gunpoint, brutalizing one, threatening to turn his dog loose on them and saying he would shoot anyone who tried to escape. The 16 migrants are seeking $32 million in actual and punitive damages.

The immigrants are represented by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF). The suit also names Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever, who MALDEF charges did nothing to prevent Barnett from holding their clients at “gunpoint, yelling obscenities at them and kicking one of the women.”

In the lawsuit, MALDEF charges that Barnett approached the group on March 7, 2004 as the immigrants moved through his 22,000-acre property. At one point, when Barnett’s dog barked at several of the women, he reportedly yelled at them in Spanish, “My dog is hungry and he’s hungry for buttocks.”

In 1998, Barnett began rounding up undocumented immigrants on his land and turning them over to the Border Patrol. He boasts that he has turned over 12,000 immigrants to the Border Patrol. He patrols the ranch in a pickup truck, dressed in a green shirt and camouflage hat, with his handgun and rifle, high-powered binoculars and a walkie-talkie. The garb is pretty clearly intended to mimic Border Patrol gear—opening the question of whether Barnett was illegally acting under color of law.

The numerous websites that glorify Barnett as a hero invariably say that migrants (condescendingly referred to as “illegals,” as if it were a noun) destroyed his property, broke into his home and “killed his calves.” But a close reading indicates this means the calves died after ingesting empty plastic water containers left on the trail—and in any case these incidents presumably happened before 1998, as they are what supposedly prompted Barnett’s vigilante campaign.

District Judge John Roll has rejected a motion to have the charges dropped, ruling there was sufficient evidence to present the matter to a jury. Barnett’s attorney, David Hardy, argues that “illegal immigrants” do not have the same rights as US citizens.

“This is my land. I’m the victim here,” Barnett says. “When someone’s home and loved ones are in jeopardy and the government seemingly can’t do anything about it, I feel justified in taking matters into my own hands. And I always watch my back.” (Sean Hannity at Fox News, Feb. 12; Washington Times, US Border Control blog, Feb. 9; Douglas Dispatch, Feb. 5)

Last September, the Arizona Supreme Court rejected Barnett’s appeal after a jury found him liable for assaulting a family of Latino US citizens while they were hunting on state land near his ranch. MALDEF, which also represented those plaintiffs, urged the Supreme Court to reject the appeal, arguing that the jury had rightfully found Barnett at fault for his attack on the family.

The Morales family and Emma English, a family friend, filed suit after Barnett confronted them on state leased land in November 2004, while they were on a hunting trip. Armed with an assault rifle, Barnett held the family at gunpoint, cursed and screamed racial slurs at them and threatened to kill them all. The jury heard the testimony of three young girls—all under the age of 12 at the time—that vividly described the event and the trauma they suffered at the hands of Barnett. The jury awarded the family $100,000 in damages.

“The Supreme Court’s decision means that Barnett will finally have to pay for his attack on the Morales family and Emma English,” said MALDEF attorney Marisol Perez. “Barnett’s actions were outrageous and offensive to notions of common decency.” (MALDEF press release, Sept. 23, 2008)

See our last posts on the struggle for the border, the politics of immigration in Arizona.

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  1. Wow this article goes into
    Wow this article goes into more detail than I’ve read before about the rancher. All the others imply that he was a hero and defended his land and only held them at gunpoint. The other articles totally left out the part of him kicking, threatening (in spanish), and shouting obscenities at them! The articles I’ve read before also don’t mention the family he held up while they were on state property and they were US citizens, and it made it sound like they were attacking his cattle.
    Writers, on both sides, are fueling the furur over illegal immigration. They like to create drama and its keeping the public away from a fair, clear resolution. ICE must be supporting our journalists!

    1. Barnett acts to protect lives of self, family, property
      Kudos to Mr. Barnett for asserting his Constitutional, Human and Civil rights, as he seeks to defend his
      family and property!!! For well over 11 years, hoards of foreign nationals from south of the UNITED STATES NATIONAL BORDER have UNLAWFULLY TRESPASSED on his and THOUSANDS of other Americans’ properties. Often
      armed with weapons, including high-powered automatic rifles, these marauding invaders leave death and destruction in their wake, as Barnett and countless other law-abiding border-line US property owners have long reported numerous and well documented instances of armed robbery, assault, burglary,etc.

      Additionally, Federal, State and local law enforcement personnel along the US border states have fielded
      innumerable reports from US Citizens concerning destruction of personal property, ranging from the
      killing of livestock and family pets to the dismantling of fences, uprooting of trees and bushes, and

      Also, large quantities of human waste, dirty diapers, used hypodermic needles and other unsanitary and dangerous items have been discovered, requiring large-scale expense of time and money.



      1. Really heartwarming
        I love the way you guys are so obsessed with your sacred “property rights,” but you obviously don’t give a shit about human rights. Somebody dares to cut a fence and you unleash a barrage of upper-case screaming with multiple exclamation points. But folks are held at gunpoint, menaced with attack dogs, threatened with death, kicked, assaulted and ritually humiliated—hey, no problem! It’s all good!

        1. They could’ve had it much worse
          Could someone please explain to me in what bizarro world foreign nationals here
          illegally have legal standing for a civil suit against a citizen whose land they
          were trespassing on?

          The rancher acted within the law. He could’ve shot and killed them all in defense of his property, and whether you agree with that treatment or not, that’s the law. Reasonable fear is assumed, and deadly force is thus justified. Instead, he turned them over to border patrol. The fact that he had his dog and gun with him is not cause for a civil suit. Have you ever been to Tucson? As a border town, fraught with a high rate of violent crime, due in large part to Mexican gang wars, people like the defendant damn well better carry their gun and dog with them at night. The fact that the illegal imigrants (which they are. It’s not a derogatory term, but rather a statement of fact) believe that our country’s laws don’t apply to them and believe that they are entitled to money because they got busted for entering our country and breaking the law and were subsequently humiliated and treated roughly just goes to show how ridiculous this lawsuit is.

        2. Heartwarming
          It’s heartwarming to know that if We Invade your home, uninvited by you that you will be supportive of our taking Anything of yours and your families or the destruction/killing of it. Please let Us have the address of your home so we can all get started right away.
          Hope you have lots of good stuff! Thanks Buddy

          1. racist weirdos
            Hey it’s also legal if I ‘accidentally’ run you over as long as I claim it was an accident. You tough guys would last about a minute in a US urban center and less in Mexico.

            And where do you idiots get off thinking your rights in the United States are being violated? To a man you are too fat, lazy and / or employed to do ANY of the jobs the Mexican / Central American illegals are coming over to do and too under educated to take jobs from the South Asians. As for the illegals taking up social services, does the phrase ‘return on investment’ mean anything to you. The small agricultural businessmen will tell you they couldn’t function without the illegals. US citizens don’t work that hard for < $10 an hour. What's going on here is phony tough guys playing war, as usual. You're not patriots, you're cowards and thugs. You're scared because your right wing fear machine has run out of steam and the country is, as usual for the last 200+ years, crowded with immigrants. Some of the darkies are working in the fields, some of them are smarter than you and yours and run motels, gas stations and get better jobs then your kids. So go work in the fields doing stoop labor.

        3. Bill, you’re not as
          Bill, you’re not as compassionate as you think. Don’t stand in the way of a victim’s self defense, frankly, these tresspassers are lucky they weren’t shot.

  2. No Racists Here!
    What’s interesting about this is that the anti-immigrant types constantly say they’re not racist, they’re just upset about “illegals.” I think many of them are not racist–many are confused people who’ve fallen for the rightwing propaganda that dominates the corporate media. But what can you make of Roger Barnett and his defenders?

    A jury of his peers found Barnett liable for damages to a family of Latino US citizens that he had confronted on state-leased land. Armed with a military-style assault weapon, he held them at gunpoint, cursed at them, subjected them to racial slurs, and threatened to kill them. The family included three young girls, all under the age of 12. People who do things like this–and people who defend them–are thugs, bullies, and, yes, racists.

    It’s amusing that the first comment is from someone who confused Barnett with Sheriff Arpaio. Barnett and Arpaio both fill a void for people who still miss the late Bull Connor of Birmingham, Alabama, and his friends in white sheets.

    David L. Wilson
    Co-author, The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers

    See “The Financial Crisis Hits the Immigration Debate” for some discussion of how the right wing tries to scapegoat immigrants.