Sheriff Dupnik’s Death Squad

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Why did they use a SWAT team?

If Tucson resident Jose Guerena was plausibly suspected of narcotics trafficking, why wasn’t he arrested on his way to or from his job at the nearby Asarco Mission copper mine? What justified a military assault on his home, when investigators knew that they could have executed a conventional search warrant?

Jose was never charged with a crime. In a previous encounter with police he consented to a search of his vehicle. In an separate traffic stop, Jose was a passenger in a car in which police found a handgun and a trivial amount of marijuana; he was arrested and subsequently released without being charged with a crime. He was an honorably discharged Marine combat veteran and – of infinitely greater importance – a gainfully employed, married father of two children.

There’s no reason to believe that anything other than a conventional search warrant – served by officers who aren’t kitted out in paramilitary drag, who knock on the door, identify themselves, and display the document in question before gaining entry – was either necessary or appropriate. This could have been done with minimal risk to everyone involved.

If a routine search warrant had been executed on the morning of May 5, the substantive result would have been the same: The police would have found no evidence of criminal activity. The most important difference, of course, would be that Vanessa would still have a husband, and her children – grade school student Jose, Jr. , and toddler Joel – would still have their father. Instead, Jose was a victim of criminal homicide at the hands of a Pima County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) SWAT team.

At the time of the raid, Jose had just finished a twelve-hour shift at the local Asarco copper mine; he was startled awake by terrified cries from his wife, Vanessa, who told him that there were armed men laying siege to their home. Jose told her to hide in a closet with their four-year-old son, Joel.

When the intruders burst into the home, Jose was in his boxer shorts and reportedly was holding an AR15 rifle, which he never discharged – contrary to the SWAT team’s initial report, which was that Jose had fired on them. His wife, who claims that she had never seen the gun before, initially told investigating detectives that it had been “thrown” next to Jose’s body. Whether or not Jose actually pointed the gun, the invaders flung a total of 71 rounds in his direction, twenty-two of which hit him.

Significantly, none of the wounds, as described in the official Medical Examiner’s report, appears to have been a killshot. Jose was grazed in the head, and wounded in the extremities. One round penetrated a lung and his spleen, causing a hemorrhage. The same report notes that there was “no evidence of medical intervention,” despite the fact that one member of the SWAT team – deputy Jay Korza – is a medic, and paramedics summoned by Vanessa’s panicked 911 call arrived at the home mere minutes after the shooting.

Rather than rendering or permitting medical aid to their victim, the SWAT team barricaded the crime scene while Jose bled to death. They didn’t even confirm Jose’s death directly. Instead, they deployed a camera-equipped remote-controlled robot to investigate, and then obtained an official pronouncement by telephone from a SWAT team physician who was miles from the scene.

The likelihood that Jose could have survived if the SWAT team had provided timely medical care elevates this crime from simple homicide to second degree murder through depraved indifference. But the guilty parties here aren’t limited to the trigger-pullers who spilled Jose’s blood: Given that there was no legal justification for a military raid in the first place, the policy-makers responsible for signing off on it are just as guilty as the people who carried out those orders.

In a petulant and self-serving television interview with local ABC affiliate KGUN, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik insisted that the SWAT raid was entirely “appropriate,” and that since Jose was “part of a very violent organization, we considered it high risk.”

As helmet camera video of the raid documents, the comportment of the SWAT team was not what one would expect from police carrying out a “high risk” mission against a potentially violent criminal. Music can be heard playing in the background; the mood of the SWAT operators seems more like what would be expected of a sports team preparing for a pickup basketball game, rather than combat-ready tactical specialists steeling themselves to confront a dangerous offender.

Furthermore, Dupnik’s rationale for the “high risk” operation is contradicted by Michael Storie, the attorney representing Jose’s killers. Asked if Jose’s previous arrest played a role in the SWAT team’s strategy in carrying out the raid, Storie replied: “No. They didn’t know anything about it and they didn’t even know Guerena would be in the house at the time they approached.”

What this means, apparently, is that a SWAT team was sent to carry out a combat-style raid against a home the team believed was occupied only by a young mother and her four-year-old child. The task force investigating Jose knew his work schedule and his family’s daily routine; did it neglect to share that information with the SWAT team? Was that intelligence deliberately withheld?

Nothing was “mishandled” here, maintains Sheriff Dupnik, ignorant of the fact that once incompetence is eliminated as an explanation, we’re left with something can only be regarded as sinister – and criminal.

The public shouldn’t be alarmed over the raid that killed Jose Guerena, the Sheriff assured KGUN, since “We average about 50 of these searches” every year. Wouldn’t this mean that there is a SWAT raid of this kind taking place practically every week in Pima County? In light of what happened on May 5, should Pima County residents receive these tidings with relief, or apprehension?

“This was an unfortunate situation that was provoked by the person himself,” Dupnik maintained, asserting that this is the inevitable outcome when someone points an “assault rifle” at cops. A more honest person would acknowledge that the SWAT operators first pointed their weapons at Jose when they had no cause or justification to do so, and that it’s always a bad idea to invade a home occupied by a young mother with a toddler.

Dupnik, however, was too busy wallowing in self-pity to spare any sympathy for the young father who was slaughtered on the floor of his own home: “Unfortunately, in this particular case, the printed media … for whatever reason, decided to beat Dupnik up, over the head, with a sledge hammer….”

Sending a paramilitary death squad to bust down a door and hurl lead in every direction is conscientious police work; criticizing the synapse-challenged apparatchik responsible for such atrocities is something akin to criminal assault. Is everybody clear on this?

Dupnik’s casually defamatory statement that Jose Guerena was part of a “very violent organization” isn’t supported by evidence, and will never be proven in court. Since Jose was killed before being charged with a crime, his innocence will forever remain an unimpeachable legal fact. However, it is a moral certainty that Clarence Dupnik is the chieftain of a “very violent organization” that can kill innocent people with impunity.

The search warrant affidavit that lead to the May 5 raids in Tucson – a tapestry of supposition held together by begged questions – purports to describe a large, well-organized narcotics smuggling operation involving Jose’s older brother and other relatives.

The PCSO’s Special Investigative Unit (SIU) investigated Jose and the others for about two years, including six months of relentless, highly intrusive surveillance. This included wiretaps, stakeouts, and detailed scrutiny of household finances. The central figure in the investigation appears to have been Jose’s older brother, Alejandro, who did have a criminal history (albeit one not involving mala en se).

Suspicions were piqued by the fact that this group of Mexican-Americans, most of whom received welfare, appeared to be living beyond their means – which, while exceedingly unwise, is neither a crime nor uncommon, even in post-Bubble America. Jose, according to his wife, was the kind of frugal provider who made birthday pinatas for their son, rather than buying them. The affidavit insists that none of the subjects appeared to be gainfully employed. That statement is offered despite the fact that the same affidavit acknowledges that Jose, who retired from the Marine Corps several years ago, worked long hours at the copper mine.

Despite the depth of their suspicions and the extent of their investigation, the affidavit admits: “During the SIU surveillance concerning the aforementioned subjects [that is, Jose and the others], they were not observed handling or even in the proximity of narcotics.”

The functionary who filed the affidavit, identified only as “Detective Tisch,”offers a litany of excuses for the absence of tangible evidence of the drug trafficking ring he and his comrades had purportedly identified.

Some “drug traffickers are aware that electronic communications are subject to law enforcement interception … [and therefore] prefer most transactions to be in person,” he writes in lines 123-124 of the affidavit. Where and when did those transactions occur? Ahem – well, you see, “it is your Affiant’s belief … that suspects who are involved in drug trafficking are aware that law enforcement officers conduct surveillance of their residences, their businesses, and their activities” – so none of the deals would go down in any of those places, y’see.

Well, why not stalk those insidious people to the secret lairs wherein they ply their insidious trade? Ah, gee, well, as much as I’d love to, Tisch stammers in print, drug dealers “are conscious of being followed by law enforcement officers and are therefore difficult to follow.” All right – what about the fact that the SIU had terrifyingly detailed access to the financial records of those whom they were investigating? “Narcotic traffickers often use financial habits designed to minimize and hide a paper trail,” Tisch wrote by way of prefacing information about the earnings, finances, employment histories, properties, and clothing purchases of Jose and Alejandro Guerena and the others.

The most significant “evidence” of Jose’s supposed involvement in the alleged drug ring was the fact that he was found in the possession of a large quantity of plastic wrap during a 2009 traffic stop. In a fashion reminiscent of Don Quixote seeing malevolent giants where windmills placidly plied the Iberian skies, Detective Tisch wrote that “it is your Affiant’s belief that saran-type wrap is commonly used to wrap and rewrap marijuana for ease of transportation….” It was subsequently discovered that this illicit “masking material” had actually been used to wrap furniture at the home of Jose Guerena’s mother.

After paring away all of the officious persiflage that litters this document, here is the “evidence” is presented to the judge:

This small group of Mexican-Americans in Tucson, who include some people with criminal records, has money and assets we believe, but cannot prove, are the proceeds of drug trafficking. The only way we can prove this is by deploying a military strike force to kick in doors and collect the evidence that we cannot find through legitimate police methods. A judge quite generously responded to that request by issuing a hunting license to the local SWAT team and calling it a “search warrant.”

The affidavit demanded permission to seize all “fruits, instrumentalities and evidence of the [drug-related] crimes” allegedly carried out by the purported marijuana trafficking ring.

Although the PCSO “rip crew” found no evidence of any kind in Jose’s home, they were nothing if not thorough: Among the supposedly “drug-related” items they plundered from the home were Vanessa’s wedding ring and Jose’s combat medals from his service in Iraq.

Once again, this detail offers critical insights into the mindset and priorities behind the May 5 atrocity. This wasn’t the behavior of people sworn to protect individual rights and private property; it was the opportunistic avarice of officially sanctioned thieves who consider themselves legally entitled to a cut of anything of value they can find.

This is why Detective Tisch’s affidavit (like any other document of its kind) should be seen as a report filed by a thief casing coveted properties on behalf of a home invasion ring: These people have a bunch of nice stuff; all we have to do is find a plausible excuse to steal it from them.

That’s how the “War on Drugs” operates at the local level. For law enforcement agencies, the objective isn’t to abolish drug trafficking, or even to impede it significantly; rather, it is to maximize the institutional profits they derive from prohibition.

One properly notorious example is on display on Interstate 40 in Tennessee, where officers from two drug task forces prowl the highway in search of cash they can seize through civil asset forfeiture.

Dutifully reciting the prescribed catechism, Kim Helper, District Attorney for Tennessee’s 21st Judicial District, insists that the highway robbery scheme is “a way for us to continue to fund our operations so that we can put an end to drug trafficking and the drug trade within this district.” Of course, those two objectives – “continued funding” and “an end to drug trafficking” – are mutually incompatible.

Officers assigned to the task force often ignore actual narcotics shipments, choosing instead to focus almost exclusively on seizing money. This means concentrating on the westbound side of the highway, where the cash is believed to be found, rather than the eastbound lane, which is supposedly used to shuttle drugs in from Mexico.

As Nashville’s CBS affiliate reports, the salaries paid to the officers involved in this highway robbery ring are paid directly out of the cash and other assets seized by them; this means that police often find themselves competing to stop and shake down the same cars, sometimes nearly coming to blows in the process.

The Patron Saint of narcotics enforcement is 19th Century NYPD Officer Alexander “Clubber” Williams, who created an immensely lucrative fiefdom in a precinct ripe with vice and graft of every conceivable variety.

Clubber’s exuberant corruption made for good press copy, which was made even livelier by his compulsive quotability. “There is more law in the end of a policeman’s nightstick than in a decision of the Supreme Court,” he explained when he was criticized about his penchant for brutality. It was his proprietary brand of glib shamelessness that gave New York’s vice district its name: “All my life I have never had anything but chuck steak. Now I’m gonna get me some tenderloin.”

Like the contemporary drug warriors who are his institutional progeny, Williams knew that vice cannot be eradicated through state coercion – but that the “war” against it can be immensely profitable. As Professor Alfred W. McCoy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison points out, through drug prohibition, police act as “an informal regulator, controlling the volume of vice trading and setting the level of syndication”; this results in the creation of “powerful syndicates and a high volume of illicit activity.”

To see a splendid example of the process Dr. McCoy describes, all that is necessary is to cast our eyes to the south. Since 2006, the Mexican front of Washington’s drug war has claimed more than 40,000 lives. It has militarized that country’s law enforcement culture, thereby generating substantial profits for the corporate affiliates of Washington’s National Security State. The inflated profits resulting from prohibitionist policies have likewise been a boon to the banking sector, both in Mexico and globally. The cartels themselves are thriving, diversifying, and expanding their institutional reach both into the U.S. and Central America.

This symbiosis police agencies and the vice cartels they help create enriches criminal kingpins on both sides. The consequences of this cynical charade are often lethal for innocent people needlessly targeted by State-licensed thugs armed with combat-grade weaponry and imbued with the scruples of Clubber Williams.