Guardado’s death prompted an immediate uproar and mass protests. The victim’s family demanded an investigation and the release of all information on the case. At first, the authorities refused to reveal the results of the official autopsy. Guardado’s parents responded by requesting an independent examination of the body. After those results were made public following days of protests, the local coroner relented and, against the wishes of the Sheriff’s Department, shared its conclusions and it confirmed what the family’s autopsy had already found: five chillingly precise gunshot wounds on Guardado’s back.
What followed paints a grim picture of the opacity that still surrounds the use of force in Los Angeles, a city with a long history of police brutality. After the results of both autopsies confirmed the killing of a young man who was clearly running for his life, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva went on the defensive. “These things take time, they are not done overnight,” Villanueva said. He then blamed accounts of potential witnesses from social media for slowing down the process, and insisted that “everyone who says that means that’s another potential witness that we have to interview.”
Guardado’s family would have none of it and demanded answers. Andrés, they said, did not own a gun. “My son wanted to be a doctor,” Elisa Guardado said. “He wanted to take care of me. Who’s going to take care of me now?”
Pressure surrounding the case has grown. And Villanueva has grown impatient.
County Supervisor Hilda Solis criticized the police response. “This young man who had his whole life ahead of him was killed at the hands of law enforcement,” Solis wrote in a statement. “I join the thousands of protesters in their demands for answers and accountability.” Solis then suggested an independent inquiry over Guardado’s death. “The status quo must change,” she said. A few days later, along with fellow supervisor Janice Hahn, Solis put forward a motion to reallocate funds away from Villanueva’s department. Villanueva did not take the criticism kindly. “Are you trying to sow more distrust between law enforcement and the community?” Villanueva asked. “Are you trying to earn the title of ‘La Malinche’?”
Villanueva’s reference to La Malinche, an indigenuous woman enslaved by Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés long characterized as a traitor, is historically misguided, but it is also sexist and racist. Solis argued as much on Twitter, and rightly so.
For a city like Los Angeles, the Guardado case and the conflict between Villanueva and Solis suggests a dangerous juncture. In the aftermath of the mass protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the city of the Rodney King riots should be careful not to fan the flames of indignation. Groups of protesters have begun gathering outside the home of Vega, the deputy who shot Guardado, while the union that represents Guardado’s father has demanded Villanueva’s resignation, as well as that of Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey.
Villanueva’s public mishandling of the Guardado case has also revealed disturbing attitudes inside his department. Capt. John Burcher, Villanueva’s chief of staff, posted an incendiary comment on Facebook, suggesting Guardado “chose his fate.” He has since been reassigned, but the insolence was not just an accident.
It’s time to respond.
Villanueva should focus on clarifying what happened to Guardado as he was running away from two sheriff’s deputies. (The FBI has announced it will review the case.) The city’s Hispanic population, whose indignation over police brutality against the community has stayed mostly dormant over the years, is waiting for answers.