Trial of anti-illegal immigration activist accused in killings spotlights tense climate along border

February 5, 2011

After Arizona rancher Robert Krentz was killed on his land last year by a man police believe was an illegal immigrant, television networks and more than 300 newspapers wrote about his death as an example of the dangers on the border.

Ten months before Krentz was killed, 9-year-old Brisenia Flores and her father, Raul, were shot to death in their home, 150 miles from Krentz's ranch. Their attackers were allegedly affiliated with an militia group opposed to illegal immigration that was conducting raids to steal money.

The Flores case is now being tried in Tucson, and immigrant rights activists contend that it deserves more attention. The reason why: The raid was allegedly organized by Shawna Forde, 43, head of a fringe border patrol group called Minutemen American Defense.

Forde's murder trial, which has been marked by vivid testimony over the past two weeks, has become a cause celebre among proponents of overhauling U.S. immigration law, who cite the killings as an example of the risks of extremism in the immigration debate.

"There has been the prospect of people taking the law into their own hands for some time," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, which advocates a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. "The rhetoric, the hate mail. It's unbelievable."

The organization Cuentame posted a video online last week asking, "Is hate turning to violence?" It elicited hundreds of comments.

But unlike the Krentz case, the trial has been a largely local story.

"There's a few places writing about this, but it is not getting the attention it deserves," said Eric Rodriguez, vice president of the National Council of La Raza. "It should be shocking to more people. Is there any circumstance where what took place is acceptable to people?"

Krentz's shooting, which for a time was a staple of news coverage and has been brought up in homeland security hearings on Capitol Hill, struck a nerve in part because of the government's failure to deal with illegal immigration. Arizona, which the Pew Hispanic Center reported this month is home to 400,000 undocumented immigrants, has passed tough legislation in recent months to crack down on those who are in the country illegally.

Forde's small Minuteman group was known for tough rhetoric on illegal immigration. According to police, Forde believed Flores was a drug trafficker and planned to seize money and drugs from him to fund her group's patrol efforts. Police found no drugs in the home and little money.

During the early-morning incident, Brisenia Flores was shot twice and Raul Flores multiple times. Brisenia's mother, Gina Gonzalez, was shot twice but survived and called 911.

Prosecutors accuse Forde of leading the raid, shouting orders to two men, her alleged accomplices, who will stand trial this spring. Defense attorney Eric Larsen counters that there's no direct evidence that she organized the raid or was at the house at the time of the shooting.

Forde was at one time a member of the much larger Minuteman Project, though that group's leader, Jim Gilchrist, has insisted his relationship with her was never "extensive." Forde, whose group had about half a dozen members, had been pushed out of other civilian border patrol groups because of her extremist views, said Professor Brian Levin, director of a nonpartisan group that studies extremism at California State University in San Bernardino.

"She was not an unknown," he said. "She was known as a firebrand."

In a 2007 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Forde was quoted saying she worried that illegal immigrants would soon "outnumber real Americans." She said she didn't like the common use of Spanish on business telephones and that she "decided to do something about it."

Because of her past comments and actions, immigrant rights groups say, the killing and the trial deserve to be treated as a crime with strong political overtones.

"It is important to raise that particular issue because it seems like a lot of the media is focusing more on the individual crime, the individual action, but what we are seeing is a trend," said Axel Caballero, director of Cuentame, which is affiliated with the liberal Brave New Foundation. "People are talking about this."

The conversation is being led by Hispanic bloggers and picked up by activists, who are focused on Forde's ties to the border militia movement.

Forde supporters have rallied around a Web site, Justice for Shawna Forde, and allege that her trial is an effort to upend the border militia movement. The operator of the site, Laine Lawless, who is a likely witness in the case, appeared in the courtroom last week against a judge's order and interrupted the trial, according to the Arizona Daily Star, which has followed the case closely.

Closing arguments in Forde's trial are expected late next week. Testimony so far has included Gonzalez's recounting of the death of her daughter by an alleged accomplice of Forde. "I can hear it happening. I can hear her telling him to 'Please don't shoot me,' " the mother testified. Last week, prosecutors introduced text messages allegedly sent by Forde to others implicated in the killings.

If convicted of murder, Forde could receive the death penalty.

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has covered local businesses, traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala to tell stories of immigrants’ connections to their home countries and reported from the newsroom’s Prince George’s County bureau. More recently, she has written about civil rights, race and politics.
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