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No More Deaths trial: Warren testifies in defense, says he's 'compelled' to help migrants in desert

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No More Deaths trial: Warren testifies in defense, says he's 'compelled' to help migrants in desert

Alleged co-conspirator arrested in Mexico as case moves forward

  • Scott Warren in Ajo in August 2018.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comScott Warren in Ajo in August 2018.

In a courtroom packed with members of the clergy in their colorful vestments, medical students, and volunteers for the humanitarian aid organization No More Deaths, Scott Warren testified in his own defense, telling jurors Wednesday afternoon that that his own spiritual values compel him to help those who "stumble" out of the desert into the neighborhoods of Ajo, Ariz., and that doing so is "good and right, especially in a place that feels like a low-intensity conflict." 

The 36-year-old geography professor faces one count of criminal conspiracy to transport and harbor illegal aliens and two counts of harboring, after he was arrested in January 2018 by U.S. Border Patrol agents at "the Barn," a ramshackle house used as a staging point for aid organizations trying to stem what volunteers have called a "humanitarian crisis" in the deserts west and south of Ajo, an unincorporated town about 110 miles west of Tucson.

If convicted and sentenced to consecutive terms, Warren could face more than two decades behind bars.

Prosecutors said during opening arguments last week that Warren conspired to transport and "shield" the two men from Border Patrol, and that he was telling the men how to circumvent a Border Patrol checkpoint north of Ajo just before he was arrested.

Prosecutors also pushed hard to link Warren to the manager of grass-roots shelters in Mexico who may have helped transport the two men from Ajo to the Barn.

Meanwhile, Warren's defense lawyers argued that the prosecution is part of a campaign to retaliate against No More Deaths following the release of videos and a report that illustrated how agents might be responsible for the destruction of water and food drops in the area, that Warren's arrest was built on a pretext, and that he was specifically targeted.

Warren's personal statement capped off a day of testimony from the defense, in which two other members of No More Deaths and the current pastor of the Unitarian-Universalist Church of Tucson, which backs No More Deaths, spoke on Warren's behalf. They outlined how the humanitarian aid organization operates, and how the group reacted to the arrests, removing expensive equipment and documents including a logbook that tracked water drops out of fear that Border Patrol would seize them — and in the case of the logbook use the location data to intentionally destroy the water drops.

Calling his volunteer work to aid migrants "choice-less," Warren said the prospect of more deaths in the desert, and more bodies discovered, was "haunting."

During his testimony, Warren said that he went to Ajo in order to work on his dissertation as a doctoral candidate at Arizona State University. He became increasingly interested in issues in Ajo and met with members of the Ajo Samaritans after he attended one of the Border Patrol's citizen academies, a six-week course designed to inform the public about the agency's mission. 

He said that as he stayed in Ajo, his eyes were "really opened" to the humanitarian crisis in the desert surrounding the small desert town, and that he became heavily involved in the community, becoming an elected member of the West Pima County Community Council. "It's an elected position, but everyone runs unopposed," Warren quipped. 

As he lived in Ajo, it became clear that everyday migrants "are stumbling" out of the wilderness aching for food, water and shelter, and that helping them is a "ubiquitous experience," for residents in the town. After months in Ajo, Warren found himself part of an effort to recover the remains of a migrant who had perished in the nearby Barry M. Goldwater Bombing Range, and the experience of finding human bones in the desert, "felt like a big transition for me," Warren testified. 

"This crisis became real to me, in a haunting kind of way," Warren said. He was used to finding animal bones in the desert, but the bones from a human being who had died "not long before," stuck with him, he said. 

After finding the bones, he found that when he saw someone come out of the desert, he again saw the decaying bones at the "same time, almost like a split-screen," and that he was struck by the "disturbing reality of how people who are living can be disappeared and lost to the desert," he said. 

Warren testified that he has helped find and recover 18 sets of human remains in the desert around Ajo, and that the work is a "deeply profound effort." 

During the hearing, Warren's lawyer Greg Kuykendall asked him, "what are you doing, spending your whole life helping strangers?" 

"It feels choice-less," Warren said. "How could you not do that when there are people dying around you?" he asked. "How could you not respond?" 

"Everyone who enters that desert will suffer," he said. Migrants attempt to cross the desert will have to walk a "long, long way" to cross the desert, and they'll witness death, either of other migrants or their companions, along the way. 

"It's an epic undertaking, you have to put everything you've got on the line in order to make it," Warren said, telling the jury that migrants often have already faced danger and deprivation in Mexico before they even attempt "the hardest thing they've ever done in their lives." 

Nonetheless, Warren testified that he felt it was important to follow the law, in part to protect the students and volunteers who came to the Barn. 

"Why would you want to understand the legal limits," asked Kuykendall. 

"I want to work within the border of the law, and not be doing something illegal and put students in a situation where they're doing something illegal," Warren said. 

Alleged conspirator arrested in Mexico as case moves forward

Prosecutors said that Warren was part of a conspiracy to get Perez-Villanueva and Sacaria-Goday to the Barn, noting that Warren and Perez-Villanueva both knew Irineo Mujica, the leader of Pueblo Sin Fronteras, a migrant aid organization that has organized "caravans" of Central American migrants through Mexico, and an organizer for migrant shelters in northern Mexico, including one in Sonoyta, the Mexican border town south of Ajo. 

Just before Warren testified Wednesday afternoon, members of Pueblo Sin Fronteras sent out an alert that Mujica had been arrested by Mexican police in Sonoyta. Another leader, Cristóbal Sánchez was arrested in Xochimilco, a borough of Mexico City, the same day, said Alex Mensing, an organizer with the group. 

A Mexican news agency, Quadratin, linked the arrests to "pressure" from the Trump administration to arrest Mujica (identified by the agency as Mújica Arzate) and said that he had been threatened with death from criminal groups because he denounced their efforts to traffic people. 

The phone calls and texts between the men, along with testimony from Burns, form the crux of the prosecution's case that Warren was involved in a conspiracy, and Warren called and spoke to Mujica on Jan. 11.  The shared contact between Warren and Perez-Villanueva showed a conspiracy to get the men to Ajo, prosecutors said.

Warren's indictment and prosecution came after former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, later sacked by the White House, told prosecutors to prioritize cases involving harboring of migrants, one of several moves made by the Trump administration as part of hard-nosed policies designed to deter illegal immigration. 

On the afternoon of Jan. 17, 2018, two Border Patrol agents— John Marquez and Brendan Burns—said they set up an observation post about 200-300 yards from the Barn, just across from a rural road on a patch of federally owned land, and after observing the barn for more than 90 minutes, Warren came out with two men, later identified as Kristian Perez-Villanueva and Jose Arnaldo Sacaria-Goday. 

The agents testified that Perez-Villanueva and Sacaria-Goday matched the descriptions of two men, believed to be in the country without authorization, and so when Warren apparently "gestured" to a series of nearby mountains, the agents decided to raid the Barn, seizing Perez-Villanueva and Sacaria-Goday in the Barn's bathroom, while Warren was taken into custody outside. 

Both men were later found to be in the country illegally, though in their original reports, the agents said that Perez-Villanueva and Sacaria-Goday were from Mexico. However, during video depositions Monday, it became clear that Perez-Villanueva, 23, is from El Salvador while Sacaria-Goday, 21, is from Honduras.

On Monday, prosecutors played video depositions made by the two men last March, who said that on Friday, Jan. 12, 2018, they crossed the U.S.-Mexico border by climbing over the border fence, and then they walked with three other men for hours, using a compass to guide them northward. 

Eventually, one man "got thorns" in his hands and feet, said Perez-Villanueva and that the other men began to "yell a lot," so Perez-Villanueva and Sacaria-Goday told them to be quiet. The men responded by telling them to "go to hell." 

Perez-Villanueva and Sacaria-Goday decided to forge ahead, walking for more than eight hours before they found themselves at the Why-Not gas station in Why, Ariz., about 26 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. 

At some point, Perez-Villanueva, who speaks a "bit of English," was able to convince an unknown person to give them a ride to Ajo. There, Perez-Villanueva contacted Mujica, who he had worked for at the Sonoyta-area shelter.

Mujica later arrived, Sacaria-Goday said, and asked where the other guys were, and what they were doing in Ajo. In a selfie photos captured from Perez-Villanueva's phone, the two men are in the back seat of a van. 

This van, with a missing 't' on its emergency exit sign, was driven by Mujica when he drove through a BP checkpoint weeks later, Burns testified, and that among the items in Mujica's van were black water bottles, typically used by border-crossers, and IDs from men who were later apprehended by Border Patrol. 

In the affidavit for Warren's phone, Border Patrol agent Jarret Lenker wrote that on Jan. 24, 2018, Mujica was stopped at the checkpoint north of Ajo on Highway 85, and they found two black plastic water bottles tied together with twine "typically used by subjects illegally entering the United States," a small black spiral notebook containing a "detained account of a trip from El Salvador to Mexico" in 2017, and a small black wallet containing four "foreign identification" cards. 

Nearly a month later, Mujica was again stopped at the checkpoint, and a passenger was arrested after he "admitted to being unlawfully present in the United States." 

As Lenker notes, "Mujica was not arrested or charged in connection with this incident." 

According to Lenker's affidavit, Border Patrol agents reviewed Perez-Villanueva's cellphone and found that he had called and texted Mujica, and at some point the shelter-manager and organizer said that he would pick up the two men in Ajo. 

According to testimony from Border Patrol Agent Rogelio Velasco, who said that he reviewed thousands of pages of data from their phones, Perez-Villanueva then texted family members and told them that he would be in Phoenix that night, but instead, Mujica—or someone driving a van linked to Mujica—drove the two men to the Barn and dropped them off. 

The men waited in the bathroom until Warren arrived 40 minutes later, along with other members of No More Deaths who were returning from an effort to recover human remains. 

Defense argues men there by happenstance, stayed because of medical issues

Witnesses for the defense, including a retired doctor who volunteers her time to deal with medical issues, a nurse who treated the men, and a translator put this prosecution's narrative into doubt on Tuesday and Wednesday. 

On Wednesday morning, Isabella Newsome, a month-long volunteer who acted as a translator for the group, said that on Jan. 12 last year, No More Deaths members, including Warren, traveled to the Mexican border town of Sonoyta to a shelter for migrants, and there they operated a temporary medical clinic and handed out "harm reduction" kits. The kits included a pamphlet that warned of the dangers in the desert, a container of ointment, bandages, as well as gauze and a vial of chlorine designed to purify the bacteria-laden water from cattle tanks in the region. 

Newsome also said that she helped Susannah Brown, a registered nurse who does medical work for No More Deaths, operate the clinic, asking people about their ailments. Later that week, on Jan. 14, she helped recover human remains that had been found a day earlier, and that after hiking 10 to 12 miles doing a "grid search" for other bodies or personal effects, the exhausted volunteers returned to the Barn and found the two men outside. 

She said that men seemed in "shock" and that Sacaria-Goday winced and grabbed his ribs, complaining that he fell on a rock earlier. 

This matches testimony from Brown, who said on Tuesday that the Sacaria-Goday had bruised ribs and that she treated both men for blisters on their feet, dehydration and exhaustion. Dr. Norma Price, who was called by Warren the night the two men arrived, said that she spoke to Warren, and recommended letting the men stay until Brown could assess them. During the next afternoon, Brown treated Sacaria-Goday's ribs and both men's feet, giving them clean socks and making sure to observe them to ensure that they didn't suffer from kidney problems, a condition often associated with severe dehydration. 

Ultimately, the two men stayed for four days and three nights, and according to one man's testimony were preparing to leave when they were arrested. Both men also said that Warren was not pointing out directions when he was arrested, but instead, he went out and talked to the two men while they smoked cigarettes. 

During Brown's testimony, prosecutors showed a short clip of a video from Perez-Villanueva's phone that showed him speaking to her during a Christmas dinner in Sonoyta. In the clip, Perez-Villanueva asks Brown her name, and she tells him and then responds back. Then, Mujica walks up and asks Perez-Villanueva to stop recording and help out. 

Brown said she didn't remember meeting the man that day. 

Prosecutors also repeatedly questioned why No More Deaths didn't simply call 911 and send the men to the hospital via Border Patrol, but Price, Brown, and another volunteer, Geena Jackson, repeatedly referred to a medical ethics idea called "informed consent" that limits what medical professionals can do for a patient who refuses care. 

During his cross-examination of Price, assistant U.S. Attorney Nathaniel Walters asked, "in a perfect world," how would she want to assess a patient. 

"Do you want me to talk about a perfect world?" Price retorted to laughter from the court gallery. 

Jackson's response to this question was more pointed. She referred to the International Red Cross guidelines, which informs No More Death's own protocols, and limit how non-governmental organization can work with "armed actors" including law enforcement. While NMD regularly meets with Tucson Sector Border Patrol, including the agency's chief, the group does not share all of its information, including the location of water drops. 

After Warren's arrest, Flannery Shay Nimrow removed a logbook containing the locations of water caches, because as Jackson put it, the group "feared that Border Patrol would destroy the water drops." 

On the day Warren was arrested, NMD released a report that said that from 2012 to 2015, 415 caches of water left for crossers in the 800-square-mile corridor near Arivaca were vandalized, spilling nearly 3,600 gallons of water into the desert. 

During this same time period, the bodies of 1,026 people were found in the Sonoran Desert, according to records from the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner. 

Using statistical analysis, including land-use patterns, as well as video from trail cameras, and personal experiences to support their claims, the group said that U.S. Border Patrol agents "are responsible for the widespread interference with essential humanitarian efforts." 

As part of the report's release, NMD also published videos of Border Patrol agents intentionally destroying water bottles, including a video in which a female Border Patrol agent systematically kicks a half-dozen water bottles, spilling their contents, and a 2017 video in which an agent punctures a water bottle with a knife. 

This report embarrassed and infuriated agents, prompting one to say that NMD had "gone too far" and "messed with the wrong guy," according to a motion filed by Warren's defense lawyers in March. 

The removal of documents remained a major point, after Burns said that objects had been removed from the Barn, and an agent who collected evidence and dusted for fingerprints, noted that many surfaces had been "wiped off." During testimony, Newsome said that she spent a day cleaning, and Jackson said that the group of students from Flagstaff may have cleaned. 

She also said that she personally removed some artwork that had sentimental value because the Barn "no longer felt like a safe place." 

Jackson also sharply criticized Border Patrol's own humanitarian efforts, encapsulated by the agency's Border Search Trauma and Rescue or BORSTAR, and the Missing Migrant Program. The agency's "scope" to respond and begin a search is so narrow, she said, that the agency has only initiated a search once since she began working with NMD in 2012. 

Warren will return and continue his testimony at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday. 

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