December 10, 2008 Raymondville, TX—In a story that is already disappearing from view, Willacy County District Attorney Juan Angel Guerra has been removed from prosecuting the prison abuse scandal case that brought national attention to this South Texas town by charging Vice President with conspiracy to profit from prisoner abuse and neglect.
Though the case initially portended to possibly have national impact, today’s news is just the latest act of what has evolved into an ongoing battle of wills between prosecutor and judge, State District Judge Manuel Banales, a judge Guerra attempted to have recused from the case and had warned would be prejudiced against him. Banales, who had already thrown out Guerra original set of indictments on technicalities, has now barred Guerra from in any way working on the case which appears to be the only criminal charges likely to be filed against any high ranking member of the Bush administration.
Guerra was further ordered to turn over all files in his possession regarding the case, thus effectively dismantling the investigation Guerra has been pursuing for the last six years.
His investigation finally came to light on Nov. 17th when a grand jury impaneled by Guerra returned indictments against a handful of local officials who had been harassing Guerra as he attempted to conduct an investigation into charges of corruption and abuse/negligence at a local ICE immigration prison. While infighting and corruption among law enforcement officials is hardly new in the four borderland counties that make up the Rio Grande Valley (note this bizarre case occurring on the same day), what caught the eye of reporters and pundits nationwide was that Guerra’s indictments included two astonishingly high profile names: Dick Cheney and Alberto Gonzales, as well as a state senator, Eddie Lucio.
Cheney owned stock in the company owned the GEO Group, the company that managed the prison; and Alberto Gonzales had gotten involved in the efforts to quash Guerra’s investigation, or so his indictments claim, though the world may never know the truth. On Dec. 1st when Banales dismissed the indictments he also refused to allow any of Guerra’s massive accumulation of evidence to be introduced into the record.
With his new ruling on Dec.10th Banales is in effect attempting to confiscate those records. As hearing ended Texas Rangers escorted Guerra out of the courtroom to guarantee he would relinquish the files he had been amassing for years. A special prosecutor, pro tem district attorney Alfredo Padilla, has been assigned to review the case and Guerra has been ordered to not discuss it with the grand jury when they reconvene this Friday Dec. 12th, though many wonder if the files will ever see the light of day.
Throughout the month-long hyper-public ordeal, Guerra’s outspoken and often outrageous demeanor has made him a target in the press and been the main justification for Banales’ dismantling of the case. Throughout his 20 year on again off career as the Willacy County District Attorney, Juan Angel Guerra has so earned a reputation for theatrical confrontation that his early career was chronicled in celebrated documentarian Hart Perry’s 2003 film Valley of Tears (a staple on liberal television networks like Free Speech TV).
One wonders if in this case that bombastic public persona proved to be his undoing.
Guerra did not appear in court when the charges were first announced. Later in the procedural hearing to recuse Banales, Guerra had a shouting match with the judge, who pointedly left Banales in charge. That same afternoon Banales would summarily dismiss the all charges, including those against Cheney and Gonzales, thus preventing the nature of those charges from even being heard in open court.
Finally on the 10th, according various reports of the three and a half hour hearing, Guerra erratic behavior was at its most extreme. Emma Perez-Trevino’s article in the Brownsville Herald, documents that “Guerra refused to answer numerous questions and challenged the court to hold him in contempt and jail him.” Christopher Sherman’s AP article for the Houston Chronicle explains that “Banales said the only reason he did not hold Guerra in contempt was to deny the prosecutor ‘any dignity whatsoever’ after the disrespect he showed the court.”
With his case completely dismissed, and dismantled, and his records confiscated; having his outrage at the corruption he hoped to challenge turned into a weapon against him, an unsupportive national liberal media who first championed then shunned his case without first looking into its merits, and even having his own home foreclosure become fodder for public derision, one hopes Banales will accept that he has achieved his goal in publicly destroying Juan Guerra. Banales may feel he has achieved justice in his own personal battle of wills with Guerra, but for Guerra supporters around the country and the families of abused and neglected prisoners in GEO prisons across the country if they will ever be allowed their day in court.
Unfortunately for the prisoners held in the privately run prison system the GEO groups runs and Dick Cheney in part owns and in part shapes through his office as Vice President, their struggle for justice and humane treatment was never the topic of the coverage of their case. Prisoners in US privately run prisons die off at a rate five times faster than those in publicly operated prisons and the health care issue that Guerra had hoped to address has already been a scandal unto itself as documented in Wil S. Hylton 2003 Harper’s article, "Sick on the Inside."
The next and possibly final scene in this courtroom drama takes place Friday when the Willacy County Grand Jury reconvenes one final time before Guerra steps down at the end of the month. With pro tem DA Alfredo Padilla on hand to act as his muzzle, Guerra will not be allowed to discuss the case in any way; though he has vowed to continue to fight to prove his accusation of systemic corruption in the private prison industrial complex, no matter which legal hurdles are thrown in front of him and even after he leaves office.
“What does all that matter with people dying in these prisons from this neglect and abuse?” Guerra shared in a personal call with this reporter following the Dec. 1 dismissals. “They can humiliate me, they can take my home; but what does that matter when people are dying from abuse and neglect?”
With determination like that, America will have to stay tuned.
--mikel weisser writes from the left coast of AZ.