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Tom Miller

Where Was I? A Travel Writer's Memoir

Tom Miller is far more than what is commonly thought of as a "travel writer." With an almost uncanny ability to observe his surroundings and the intellectual heft to choose the telling detail, Miller's understated writing places the reader inside history. Here, in his recent memoir, Miller talks about a story that he couldn't quit. 

My local Tucson daily told of three Mexican campesinos who were robbed, beaten, and tortured on August 18, 1976 as they crossed a ranch just west of Douglas, Arizona. The ranch was owned by George Hanigan, a local businessman who, along with his two teen-aged sons, pistol-whipped the Mexicans, stripped them down, singed their feet with a hot poker, and tossed nooses around their necks. One victim had his hands and feet bound behind his back “like when you tie a calf,” he later said. The ranchers rolled the bloodied campesinos over with their boots on the 135º desert floor, and after freeing the Mexicans’ limbs, fired buckshot in their backs as they ran naked toward Mexico through the blistering hot ranchland.

I found my story.

Most writers, freelance or employed, can look back and point to one work—a chapter, an essay, an expanded piece of reportage, an entire book—that defined his or her ability, growth, and strength. For me it was “Hanigan’s Grave,” the chapter from my eventual border book that focused on the ordeal of the three campesinos.

I stuck with the story from the day after the incident to the morning of the final judicial verdict more than four years later. I spent weeks—months—in Cochise County and northern Sonora passing time with veteran Border Patrolmen, sympathetic cowboys, third-generation ranchers, friendly farmers, and helpful Mexicans. 

The Hanigan trial drew human rights groups demonstrating at the county courthouse, coverage in the international press, and theatrical reenactments in southern Arizona community centers. Singers Pedro Flores and Los Alegres de Terán recorded songs about the case.

Some in the ranching community supported the sadists. It was their way of declaring their attitude toward Mexicans illegally crossing their property. “If Adolph Hitler were running for office,” the Douglas High School dean of students confided, “he’d be George’s man.” Glancing at the all-white jury in Cochise County Superior Court prior to his opening argument, the prosecutor whispered to his partner: “If we win, we vacation in Mexico. If we lose, we vacation in Texas.”

The Hanigan brothers were charged with assault with a deadly weapon, conspiracy to assault, kidnapping, and conspiracy to kidnap, as well as armed robbery. (Their father died of a heart attack shortly before the trial began.) At the trial the three victims clearly identified the location, the attackers, and their brutality.  

Yet the Hanigan lawyers, a good-ole boy and his son, completely confused and manipulated the uneducated victims with their judicial vocabulary and poor official translations. By trial’s end the Mexicans were made to feel that they were the guilty parties.

The jury found the brothers innocent of all charges. The prosecutors could vacation in Texas.  

A schism erupted between the supporters of the victorious brothers and backers of the Mexican campesinos. David Duke came to town. A petition drive to reopen the case began. The evidence was so overwhelming and the incompetence of the investigating sheriff’s deputies was so staggering that international public opinion compelled President Carter’s Justice Department to bring the case to federal court. The circumstance of torture was the same—rifle butt slammed in Manuel’s shoulder, Eleazar almost strangled to death by hanging, Bernabé dragged by a rope next to a mesquite fire lit for the occasion. This time, however, the charge was different. The Justice Department brought up the Hanigan brothers on the Hobbs Act, a law that prohibited interference with interstate commerce. The campesinos were considered interstate commerce, so to attack them was a violation of the Hobbs Act.

The jury in Tucson federal court, which heard the same testimony about the atrocity as before, was hung for both brothers. The Justice Department renewed the Hobbs Act charges again. Finally, four-and-a-half years and three trials after the campesinos’ feet were branded, a jury reached a conclusion: one brother was imprisoned, the other walked. The campesinos blended back into the Mexican population. One, last I heard, worked for a traveling circus. Another operated a tortilla factory. I never learned about the third.   

I spent the better part of my thirties covering the Hanigan drama. The story of ranchland cruelty evolved into regional legend. Even when I’m not looking it continues to preoccupy me. Earlier this week as I write this, I chatted with a man in his thirties who was raised in Agua Prieta. I asked him if he knew about the case, now almost fifty years old. “Oh, yes,” he said. “My nana always said, ‘If you don’t behave, I’m going to take you up to the Hanigan ranch.’”

This piece is excerpted from Where Was I? A Travel Writer’s Memoir. Tom Mller is the author of 10 books about conflict and culture in the American Southwest and Latin America. Where was I? is his most recent.

The Hanigan Case

Excerpted from On the Border: Portraits of America's Southwestern Frontier.

Manuel, Bernabé, and Eleazar felt confident Wednesday morning August 18, 1976, as they crossed the fence separating Mexico from the United States. Bernabé knew where they could find work in the Sulphur Springs Valley and Manuel was anxious to locate his last employer, who still owed him money. The three walked through mesquite and scrub brush, resting occasionally and sipping from their plastic water jug. As they circled around the smelter stacks west of Douglas, Arizona, Bernabé, who kew the countryside best, spotted Highway 80, the first major landmark of the journey. Just then a plane flew overhead and the three dove into the hip-high Johnson grass nearby. La migra is everywhere, they knew, even in the air. Eleazar pointed to a man on a tractor in the distance, but his two companions shrugged. They were busy refilling the jug at a windmill.   

As they sipped some water a yellow pickup with a white camper shell headed toward them, and the three jumped back into the grass. The truck passed them - then stopped, backed up, and came to a halt. An Anglo with a black mustache, wearing work clothes and a baseball cap with an H on it, hopped out brandishing a pistol. He was the same man Eleazar had seen on the tractor.   

“OK, mojados, pa’arriba,” the Anglo commanded. OK, wetbacks, get up. Slowly the three came out from the brush as the armed man demanded in Spanish: "Where are you going?" "We're going to Elfrida to work," Bernabé replied.   

The man pointed to a paper bag they were carrying. “What's in there?”  

"Just food and clothing," Eleazar answered.  

"All right, you fucking wetbacks," the young rancher con­tinued in Spanish. ''You're not going anywhere. All you wets do is come here to rob and then you go back to Mexico."  

Manuel protested. "No. We're not here to do any damage, we're here to work. There's no work in Mexico.”

"There's lots of work in Mexico," the man countered angrily as he motioned them into the camper with his gun and shut the door.  

"I guess he's going to turn us over to la migra," Manuel said, recalling his previous departure from the United States a few weeks earlier. "Well," added Bernabé, "we'll just have to start all over again tomorrow.”

The truck carried them to Highway 80 where it turned west, then into a driveway leading to a ranch house north of the highway. The driver got out and went into the house.  

The mustachioed man returned fifteen minutes later and opened the camper door. "Are you hot?" he asked. The temperature hovered just under ninety degrees, and the three nodded quickly. The gunman led them over to some shade next to the house. Again he asked why they were in the United States. "We can't find any work back home," Bernabé replied.  

A blue pickup, also with a white camper shell, pulled into the driveway and a well-dressed elderly businessman carrying a rifle emerged. He glared at the three. "Wetbacks?" he asked the gunman. The young man nodded and the two talked in English. The old man, a stocky fellow with· a weather-beaten face, went into the house. When he came out a short time later he wore denim pants, a plaid shirt, a red kerchief, and a straw cowboy hat. "Entienden ingles?" he asked the apprehensive Mexicans. Do you understand English? They did not. Just then a third pickup arrived, hauling a cow in a trailer behind it. A tall baby-faced cowboy hopped out, a handgun tucked in his waistband; His right wrist was wrapped in a white bandage.  

"Ah, mojados!" the newcomer smiled. He turned his atten­tion to Manuel. "I know you..You stole three rifles and a pistol from me.”  

Manuel furrowed his' forehead. "No, that's not true. I've never been here before.”  

"I know you by the shoes you're wearing," the baby-faced cowboy charged. Manuel was wearing the only pair he owned, a black patent leather pair with platform heels.  

"These shoes were given to me by Don Antonio Hernandez of Agua Prieta," an old family friend at whose house Manuel had been living and in whose junkyard he had worked.  

"Liar," Baby-Face spat out. "All Mexicans are thieves."  

"You're crazy! I've never been here before.”  

"Shut up!" Baby-Face shouted back. 

"OK, back in the truck," their original abductor ordered. Manuel, Bernabé, and Eleazar sensed that the Border Patrol was not coming after all. 

Richard Misrach, Border Cantos

As the three Mexicans watched from the camper, Baby-Face took some rope from his pickup and got into the cab of the yellow pickup with el bigote, the mustachioed one. With the old man following in his truck, el bigote and Baby-Face drove the Mexicans to an arroyo near the original windmill site. They told Manuel to get out and lie down.

Manuel Garcia Loya resisted at first. The eldest of ten chil­dren, twenty-five-year-old Manuel had hitchhiked to the border seven weeks before from Ciudad Chihuahua, where his father worked on construction crews. He crossed near Naco and found a job at seventy-five cents an hour cleaning out tree wells at the Pride of· Cochise apple orchard near Willcox, Arizona. He figured to send some money home andwork his way north until he got to Chicago, where he had heard Mexicans could earn high wages. His dream ended abruptly when the Border Patrol raided the apple orchard twelve days later and shipped him back to Mexico before he even got paid.

The three were insistent. Manuel stub­bornly refused. As el bigote held him, Baby-Face took some rope and tied Manuel's wrists behind him. The two threw him to the ground while the old man stood guard with his shotgun and laughed. 

Eighteen-year-old Bernabé Herrera Mata was next. The el­dest of seven children, Bernabé had been on the road since leaving his home in Durango, Mexico two years earlier. The slight muchacho with Indian features had lived in Tijuana and occasionally crossed into Southern California, had crossed the Sonora-Arizona line many times, the Chihuahua-New Mexico border once, and had even slipped into the United States as far east as El Paso. Sometimes the Border Patrol picked him up, other times he returned to Mexico on his own. His most recent job at Mission Valley Farm near Elfrida, twenty-five miles away, had paid a dollar an hour, and his boss had told him he was welcome back to help with the peanuts, wheat, alfalfa, and corn.

That seemed unlikely now, as el bigote and Baby-Face beck­oned him to lie down next to Manuel. Bernabé’s hesitation ended quickly as he was grabbed, had his hands tied behind him, and was forced to the ground.

Eleazar watched in horror. Born twenty-four years earlier in Mocorito, Sinaloa, Eleazar Ruelas Zavala helped his family of fifteen by working in the fields near Culiacan. At twenty-one he decided to travel to the United States, but found a job instead at a limestone quarry in Sonora. Soon he moved to Agua Prieta, where he worked for two years at an American-owned textile plant. In early 1976 he lost his job and started crossing into the United States. Eleazar's last boss, for whom he weeded cotton, was particularly impressed with him. When he left his common­ law wife and their three-month-old son to travel with Manuel and Bernabé, Eleazar had been full of optimism.

Eleazar meekly complied with the Americans' orders, allow­ ing his wrists to be tied behind him, then lying down near the two others. Baby-Face knelt and tied Manuel's ankles together, and then tied them to his hands so all four limbs were immobile behind his back. Bernabé and Eleazar received the same treat­ment.

The three Americans talked in English, then the younger ones searched the Mexicans' clothing. "Oh, you have money!" the tall cowboy smiled as he pulled close to seven dollars from Manuel's pocket. His shoes yielded thirty dollars more. Bernabé had a dollar, which was taken from him. 

"Why are you coming to the United States?"

Manuel cried out that he had only come to find work, and that the money was to buy food. The armed Americans kept laugh­ing as their captives looked up in horror. 

Baby-Face and el bigote methodically stripped each of the tied-up Mexicans, using a knife to slice off their clothes. Baby­ Face lit a mesquite wood fire some yards away and tossed strips of clothing into it. The paper bag with food and clothing the Mexicans had been clutching all morning was tossed toward the fire; bread and bologna scattered all over. While Manuel, Bernabé, and Eleazar were bound and naked, their heads were yanked back and a knife slashed through their hair. "Why are you coming here?" el bigote asked as he hacked at Eleazar's hair, tossing clumps of it into the fire. "Pinche Mexicans, we never go to your country. Why do you come to ours?”

Bernabé screamed: "Why are you doing this?” 

"Mexican crybabies," the old man said in disgust. He got a knife and threatened to cut the Mexicans' throats. Baby-Face put a pistol to Eleazar's head: "Let's see if your Virgin of Guadalupe can help you now," he laughed.

The young tormentors took turns dragging the Mexicans by the ropes close to the fire. "You're not going to live a minute longer," el bigote announced. "You're not going back to your damn Mexico. You're going to die here.” 

"Are you thirsty?" the old man asked. The three nodded their heads, tongues hanging out. Baby-Face approached them with their own water jug and, laughing, poured water on each of them. With his boot he turned each one over on the 135-degree desert floor. Dirt and pebbles and stickers clung to their bodies.

"We don't like Mexicans," Baby-Face said as he finished rolling the third one, "because all Mexicans are thieves.” 

Bernabé was dragged still closer to the fire but squirmed away enough so he didn't feel the worst of thre heat. El bigote took a long metal rod out of the fire and passed its hot end over the bodies of the three. The tall cowboy took the hot bar from el bigote and touched it to the bottoms of Eleazar's feet, burn­ing them again and again. The odor of his own burned flesh filled Eleazar's nostrils, and he could see the smoke rising from his soles. His scream began in his feet and worked its way up.

The old man had been looking at young Bernabé, particularly at his penis. He took a knife from el bigote and, grinning, grabbed Bernabé’s testicles in one hand and slowly drew the knife next to the sac with the other. "I like your balls,'' the old man said. “I want to cut them off.”

Bernabe screamed "No!" and started praying. He was con­vinced he was about to die. El bigote ran up and pulled the old man's arm away, pleading with him to stop. The old man relented.

Eleazar was dragged along the hard ground by the rope bind­ing his hands and feet until at last he was deposited at the bottom of the arroyo. One end of another rope was placed around his neck. The other end was thrown over the branch of a tree growing at the arroyo's edge. Baby-Face pulled on the rope and Eleazar's body lifted a little bit off the ground. To relieve the pressure around his neck Eleazar naneuvered him­ self to the bank of the arroyo and propped himself up on his elbows.

Bernabé could see Eleazar's shoulders and head above the arroyo wall. "Please let me loose," Bernabé begged. ''I'll never return to the United States again."

"Of course you won't,'' Baby-Face said. as he cut Bernabé’s ropes, "because in another minute you're going to die. Let's see how good you are at running." Bernabé froze.

"Run!" the norteamericanos yelled. Bernabé ran, heading in the general direction of Mexico, while Baby-Face climbed on the hood of the nearest pickup and fired after him. To Bernabé the shotgun pellets felt like a swarm of bees stuck to the backs of his arms and legs. He let out a screech and looked over his shoulders to see the Americans laughing. A second shot missed as the barefoot and naked Mexican zig-zagged through the brush.Eventually he reached the border fence. and threw him­self over it.

The noose around Eleazar's neck was cut and his hands and feet were untied. "You're next," the old man told him. "The same thing is going to happen to you as your partner. He's dead." Eleazar ran down the arroyo which slanted toward the border as Baby-Face charged after him, gun in hand. Dashing up one side of the arroyo, Eleazar tripped over a small gully. Shotgun pellets whizzed overhead as he fell. His hand hurt from the fall and a rock ground into his knee on impact. He hid behind some bushes. After a short silence he began crawling then walking, bent forward at the waist so he wouldn't be seen. Dirt and sharp rocks dug into the blisters covering the soles of his swollen feet. He paused twice to pull off dead skin before arriving back in Mexico.