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Sheriff riding out of town

Some in a tiny Arizona city regret opposing a lawman's anti-illegal immigrant tactics.

October 13, 2008|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

GUADALUPE, ARIZ. — Six months ago, this town of 5,500 took a stand against the most powerful lawman in the state.

As Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's deputies swept through town during a controversial operation searching for illegal immigrants, Mayor Rebecca Jimenez confronted the 76-year-old sheriff and told him he wasn't wanted.

The town, founded by Yaqui Indians a century ago, became a symbol of a grass-roots rejection of Arpaio's tough anti-immigration tactics.

But now, Guadalupe is having second thoughts about how it fought the sheriff.

After the confrontation, Arpaio struck back by canceling his contract to patrol the one-square-mile town, forcing officials to search for another agency to protect Guadalupe.

Jimenez, 36, was replaced as mayor, and the city's new leaders are trying to find some way to persuade Arpaio to stay.

"This town really does need him," said Janice LaBorin, 25, a home healthcare worker. "There are too many criminals and little gangbangers here."

Plenty of people still want Arpaio out, but among some, defiance has given way to contrition.

Jimenez "took the wrong tactic," said Lupita Llamas, the owner of two Mexican restaurants in a mostly empty colonnaded shopping arcade. Arpaio is "a powerful person. You have to talk to him carefully."

The rift between Guadalupe and the sheriff began the night of April 3, when Arpaio brought his anti-illegal immigrant sweep to the parking lot of the Family Dollar store.

The two-day operation was one of several Arpaio has launched across Maricopa County ostensibly to stop crime, but also to identify illegal immigrants.

Arpaio, who calls himself the "toughest sheriff in America," has taken the aggressive position that he can arrest and deport illegal immigrants even if they have committed no serious crimes.

Deputies stopped people for the slightest infractions -- a cracked windshield, broken taillight, jaywalking -- and asked whether they were in the country legally.

Residents complained that deputies were stopping anyone who looked Latino, which is basically the entire town. Guadalupe is 51% Latino and 49% Native American, according to census figures.

Helicopters buzzed overhead while Arpaio held forth before television cameras at his parking lot command post.

Jimenez confronted him there. As cameras rolled, she complained that his news release falsely stated that town officials had asked him to come to fight illegal immigration.

"You came here under false pretenses," she said.

"I came here to protect your community from crime," Arpaio replied.

As he walked off, he added, "If you don't like the way we operate, you get your own police department."

Two weeks later, Arpaio sent Jimenez a letter notifying her that he would cancel the contract because it now appeared that Guadalupe, which had been patrolled by the department for 20 years, would not let him enforce all state laws.

The county supervisors approved the cancellation late last month, giving Guadalupe six months to find another agency.

The town soon discovered that finding a replacement was not so easy. Other cities said their police budgets were too strapped to step in.

Concerns were muted at first. After all, defiance was nothing new to Guadalupe. For more than 100 years, the town, now enveloped by the sprawl of Phoenix, had stood on its own.

It was formed by a band of Yaqui Indians who fled persecution in Mexico to Arizona's Salt River Valley. They moved onto a 40-acre plot of land, built two white adobe churches and erected a tiny settlement of dirt lanes and adobe houses.

Guadalupe always seemed to stand out. The streets remained unpaved until the 1960s, and the town lacked a sewage system until it incorporated in the 1970s.

As the search for a replacement law enforcement agency wore on, some residents began to fret about their safety.

Jimenez, who said she never asked Arpaio to stop policing Guadalupe, was ousted from her post for reasons unrelated to the confrontation. She remains on the town council but was replaced as mayor by Frankie Montiel, who vowed not to question Arpaio.

"We cannot, as elected officials, tell another elected official how to do his job," Montiel, 27, told county supervisors last month as he asked for more time.

The town's efforts to make up has disheartened some residents.

"We shouldn't beg," said Gabe Felix, 43, a Yaqui and an Army veteran who was detained during the sweep. "We've always been a proud race. Never been beaten. Never been put in a reservation."

Ignacio Garcia, 28, who works as a police officer in a different jurisdiction, said, "I don't think they should bow down. . . . They should stick to their guns."

To buy more time, the town has sued Arpaio and the supervisors to keep the contract in place.

Arpaio said he has given the town ample time to find a replacement by warning of the cancellation in April and not giving the formal notice until September.

He said, however, that even when another agency patrols the city, his deputies will still be free to round up illegal immigrants there.

"I can still enforce the laws in Guadalupe," Arpaio said. "No one is going to say, 'You can't come into Guadalupe,' even if they have another police department."

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nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com

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