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INS-Style Justice

Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter

The prosecution of five immigrants accused of taking part in a riot at an Immigration and Naturalization Service jail in El Centro ended in a San Diego courthouse last month.

But the defendants’ fates are still uncertain. Jose Aguilar Valenzuela, Henry Cortez Boanerges, Anthony Pineda Delgado, Jose Santa Maria Hidalgo and Try Thol agreed to accept a plea bargain in October, 1999, and were each sentenced on December 14 to 364 days in jail. They have all been incarcerated since the riot on March 9, 1998, and received credit for time served. None of the five face additional jail time on charges stemming from the riot, but only one defendant — who was immediately deported — has been released. The rest, who either have run afoul of the law since the riot or are still in INS custody, are not likely to see freedom soon.

The five were among seven immigrants who stood trial last spring on charges stemming from the El Centro uprising, during which inmates took control of two barracks for one night, and four guards suffered cuts and bruises. One of the seven was acquitted of all charges in June; the jury acquitted the remaining six of some charges, including assault on a federal officer and conspiracy to assault a federal officer, but was hung on the rest. Of the six, one defendant took a separate plea bargain last fall.

To avoid lengthy retrials, federal prosecutor Shane Harrigan agreed to accept guilty pleas to the crime of "misprision of a felony," which, in this case, means failing to report the destruction of government property to civil authorities. It was a bargain the five defendants could live with, said attorney Nancy Kendall, who called the deal a "huge victory." They did not have to admit to active participation in the riot, only to being, she said, "reverse snitches."

One defendant, Rogelio Arroyo Vega, who had been acquitted of all charges in June, has since been released by the INS pending the outcome of his deportation hearings. Liban Ahmed Abdala, in a separate bargain in September, pleaded guilty to destruction of federal property. He also received a 364-day sentence and was released to the INS. Due to political conditions in his native Somalia, Abdala cannot be deported and, unless his deportation order is overturned, will likely be imprisoned indefinitely in a privately run immigration jail in San Diego.

He was joined there last month by co-defendant Delgado, who has consented to his deportation to Nicaragua. Of the remaining defendants, only Valenzuela has been released from custody; he was deported to Mexico one day after sentencing. Boanerges and Thol are being held in the San Bernardino County Jail awaiting sentencing on unrelated charges. The INS placed Hidalgo, who was about to be deported to El Salvador, in the same detention facility as detainees who had testified him against him at trial. Last week, he was allegedly involved in an altercation with two former material witnesses and now may have to do some additional jail time before being deported.

Four of the defendants have taken preliminary steps toward filing a lawsuit, against the INS, alleging they were severely beaten in a retaliatory attack by guards at El Centro three days after the riot. Valenzuela’s ear was nearly torn off his head, said Doug Gilliland, Aguilar’s lawyer in the civil case, after "one of the guards stepped on his head and another one kicked it like a football." The suit should begin in earnest this spring, Gilliland said, but "our concern right now is that the INS is going to see that we filed a claim and deport these guys as fast as they can."

If little in their futures is certain, there’s one thing the El Centro Five don’t need to worry about. An INS spokesperson told the Weekly that "for obvious reasons," none of the defendants would be sent back to El Centro.