Sylvanna Falcon, Delegate from WILD for Human Rights, had the opportunity to share a testimonial about the Raping of Migrant Women on the U.S. – Mexico Border. Below is Ms. Falcon’s testimony.
One issue that often gets overlooked when talking about immigration to the United States and border enforcement is the systematic sexual violence of undocumented women by U.S. border enforcement officers along the U.S.-Mexico border.
This form of rape, like all forms of rape, goes under-reported because of the vulnerable status of these affected women – women of undocumented status. Due to fear of reprisals, trauma, and being unfamiliar with complaint reporting procedures, women may be reluctant to file a formal complaint. Those women who move forward with filing a complaint however, are often re-traumatized due to insensitive interrogation tactics, often times by colleagues of the border enforcement officers who allegedly violated them. The targeting of these women is an example of racialized and gendered attacks. They are being systematically targeted because they are women and because they are Latinas.
Two incidents of systematic rape of migrant women as reported by human rights groups, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International:
Juanita Gómez and a female cousin crossed through the hole in the border fence between Nogales, Sonora and Nogales, Arizona on September 3, 1993.[i] They were on their way to meet two male friends at a nearby McDonalds to go shopping. Larry Selders, a Border Patrol agent, stopped all four people, but only detained Gómez and her cousin in his Border Patrol vehicle. According to both women, Selders told them that he would not take them to the Border Patrol station for processing and deportation to Mexico if they would have sex with him. Both women refused. He eventually asked Gómez’s cousin to step outside of his vehicle. When he drove off alone with Gómez, Selders raped her.
Gómez and her cousin eventually found each other at the Mexican Consulate in Nogales, Arizona and informed officials at the Mexican Consulate. The Consulate immediately contacted the Nogales Police Department and Border Patrol to inform them of the situation. But one of the Nogales detectives did not believe the women’s statements, asked them if they were prostitutes, and threatened them with jail time if they failed to pass a lie detector test. However, after this questioning, Gómez and her cousin identified Selders in a photo lineup. Despite their identification, the incompetence of the police led to the loss of other important evidence such as Selders’s clothes. The Nogales Police department picked up Selders for questioning more than three hours after Gómez reported the rape to the police and he had already changed his clothes. In addition, the police seized the wrong Border Patrol vehicle and realized the error a week and a half later.
Selders eventually entered a “no contest” plea on a reduced charge on July 25, 1994. The county attorney decided to reduce the original charge of “rape and kidnapping” to “attempted transporting of persons for immoral purposes…while married.” This crime is the lowest felony class, and the charge upset many immigrant rights advocates (Arizona Republic, July 28, 1994). Selders received a one-year prison sentence on October 7, 1994, with eligibility for parole after six months. He served only six months of the sentence and resigned from the Border Patrol in August 1994.[ii] Gómez’s attorney argued the rape could have been prevented if Selders had been held accountable for previous acts of violence against women; three other women testified at Gómez’s trial that Selders attacked them as well.[iii] These women were afraid to file charges, and the statute of limitations in their cases expired by the time of Gomez’s trial.
Luz López and Norma Contreras
Luz López and Norma Contreras filed an INS complaint against an El Paso Border Patrol agent who sexually assaulted them on March 7, 1996. The agent arrested them near the Rio Grande River and detained them in his vehicle. López and Contreras, both from Guatemala, were each 23 years old respectively at the time of the assault. According to the complaint the women filed against the agent:
(The agent) lifted up Contreras’ dress, pushed her legs open, pulled aside her underwear and stuck his fingers in her vagina. The other woman, López, was told to undo the buttons on her jumpsuit and the agent put his hands inside her top and felt her breasts. The two women said they stared at each other, paralyzed by terror.[iv]
López said: “We feared the worse. We didn’t know where he was going to take us. Just the sight of him with a badge and a gun was enough to intimidate anyone.” The agent briefly left the women in the car. He spoke to another agent, who was alone in a different vehicle nearby. Both men returned to the car. At this time, “in full view of the second agent, the arresting agent assaulted both women again.” The women were then taken to the Border Patrol office. At the office, the same agent allegedly committed a third sexual assault by the same agent “in a detention cell and in a bathroom.” After torturing them for several hours, “the agent gave the women one dollar each and released them” into the United States.[v]
Following the ordeal, López and Contreras filed a formal complaint against both agents. The women stayed in El Paso in order to cooperate with the investigation. They recounted the attacks to male Office of Inspector General (OIG) investigators, identified the agents from photographs, and received rape counseling. The OIG began an investigation, but did not pursue the complaints, accusing López and Contreras of lying and threatened to prosecute them.”[vi] As in all cases of rape, the women were severely traumatized from the ordeal, and Contreras attempted to commit suicide later that same year.
Forced sex was the price for entry and the role of legal documents was a factor. This Border Patrol agent was protected during an OIG investigation which re-traumatized the women; officials questioned the women’s credibility and attempted to discredit their story. López and Contreras were completely unprotected. Contreras attempted suicide in 1996.
In your visit to the United States, we urge you to consider asking U.S. officials about this issue and how they plan on upholding the rights of these migrant women.
[i] Human Rights Watch (1995) acquired the information in this account through interviews with the victim, her lawyer, the Office of the Inspector General, and press reports.
[ii] Human Rights Watch, Crossing the Line: Human Rights Abuses Along the U.S. Border with Mexico Persist Amid Climate of Impunity, (New York, NY: Human Rights Watch, 1995, 12-13).
[iii] “Women Raped by Border Patrol Agent Awarded $753,000.” Associated Press, State and Local Wire, 14 October 1999; Human Rights Watch, Frontier Injustice: Human Rights Abuses Along the U.S. Border with Mexico Persist Amid Climate of Impunity, (New York, NY: Human Rights Watch, 1993, 13).
[iv] Amnesty International, United States of America: Human Rights Concerns in the Border Region with Mexico, 1998, <http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/engAMR510031998> (13 March 2006).
Photo: Sylvanna Falcon Testifying before the Special Rapportuer
Photo: Special Rapportuer Doudou Diene