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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.