Two of humanity’s darkest hours occurred three and a half decades and a few miles apart on this parched bit of earth. Mirror images of violent encounters in Cochise County between US and Mexican citizens, the confrontations continue to haunt residents on both side of the border.
The Hanigan Case.
This tragedy, claimed the Mexican Consulate in Douglas, Arizona, “opened the hunting season for every illegal alien who comes into the United States.” On August 18, 1976, three young Mexican men, Manuel García Loya, Eleazar Ruelas Zavala, and Bernabe Herrera, entered the US illegally at the Douglas border and walked toward the nearby town of Elfrida, where farm work beaconed. Their path took them across the ranch lands of the Hanigan family. George Hanigan and his sons Thomas and Patrick captured the men, announcing, “All right, you fucking wetbacks. You’re not going anywhere.” The Hanigans hog-tied the Mexican men, beat them, hung them from a tree, burned their feet, threatened to cut off their genitals with a knife, and in the one transgression that would matter, robbed them. The Hanigans eventually released the men and chased them back to Mexico, but not before filling their backs with buckshot.
When an all-White jury in Cochise County state court inexplicably acquitted the Hanigans of assault, kidnapping and robbery charges, protesters demanded a federal intervention. To circumvent the prohibition of double jeopardy, federal prosecutors focused on the robbery, charging the Hanigans with violating the Hobbs Act, which makes illegal “the movement of any article or commodity in commerce, by robbery ….” To avoid local prejudice, the Feds also moved the trial one county west, to Pima County. When that trial ended with a hung jury, the Feds then moved a county north, to Maricopa County, and secured a conviction of one of the brothers and a three year sentence.
In addition to robbing their victims, the Hanigans’ other meaningful mistake, according to senior Border Patrol agent Tom Miller, was in letting their captives survive. “I can see shooting them, you know, blowing their heads off. But torturing them makes no sense.” But, survive they did and Musician Chuy Quintanilla would immortalize “Los Tres Mojados,” The Three Wetbacks, in song. The mojados also spawned a very different legacy in the figures of vigilante groups that formed in the long, dark shadow of the Hannigan case. Heavily armed and possessed of brutal sentiment – “If I had my way, I’d shoot every single one of ‘em” – these groups round up people they believe to have entered the country illegally, hold them for border patrol officials, and all too often abuse their detainees.
I’ll speak with some of the principal actors in this tragedy and reflect upon its legacy.
- “Los Tres Mojados,” by Pedro Flores Con Los Hermanos Prado.
- October 2, 2015: I visited the Antonio Bustamante Collection in Arizona State University’s Hayden Library:
- October 3, 2015: A profoundly moving interview with Antonio Bustamante.
The Krentz Case.
By all accounts, Robert Krentz was one of the good guys … to everyone. A well-liked and highly regarded cattleman who had recently been inducted into the Arizona Farming and Ranching Hall of Fame, he was quick to offer help to anyone regardless of legal status or the side of the border fence from which they hailed. At around 10:30 am on March 27, 2010, while out doing what a cowboy does – checking on the stock watering ponds on the 35,000 acre ranch that had been in his family since 1907 – he discovered a man in peril and radioed his brother something to the effect, “illegal alien … hurt … call Border Patrol.”
Krentz was not to be heard speaking again. His family discovered him shortly before midnight lying dead on the land that had defined his life with two 9 mm slugs in his chest. His trusty canine sidekick, “Blue,” had also suffered a gunshot and, though still breathing, was not to survive. The presumed perpetrator’s tracks led south across the Mexican border.
The case remains unsolved. Initial suspicions centered on the actions of a surprised undocumented immigrant. Later theories and law enforcement investigation postulated retribution for a roundup of illegal drug couriers on the property the day before. Authorities have made no arrests and offer little hope of unraveling this border mystery.
- October 6, 2015: A fascinating interview with Susan Krentz and her 92 year old mother.
Chilling, John. One of the reasons we were worried abut you on your mission/journey was the violence. Glad you made it, but not surprised. I hope to hear a translation of “Los Tres Mojados” someday. Amazing stories, my friend. Hats-off to you for the thoughtfulness and courage to tell them.