Rivera's Edge

After a year on the job, U.S. Attorney Jose de Jesus Rivera looks to be in the right place at the right time

And, in fact, Rivera opened the press conference by saying, "Everyone who doesn't know we've found a tunnel, raise their hand."

Rivera is a man of medium height, with a bit of middle-aged heft. He wears dark suits like many government lawyers, but the suits give him the uncomfortable look of a man who spent most of his career wearing jeans and tee shirts.

He stiffened as he read the official statement about the tunnel; a videotape ran overhead--the dusty tunnel in question looked like a colonoscopy.

When Rivera opened the floor for questions, he loosened up, and glibly ad-libbed answers.

One reporter asked if the alleged drug smugglers named in the indictments had day jobs.

"You'll have to ask their mothers," Rivera quipped.
The fact that the federal law-enforcement officers had not yet traveled the length of the tunnel belied the complexity of cross-border investigations. They had not yet gotten permission from Mexican authorities and needed to wait until warrants were served on the other side of the border.

Being U.S. Attorney in Arizona is a peculiar job.
"Arizona is a very unique district," says U.S. District Court Judge Stephen McNamee, who is a former U.S. Attorney. "We have 300-plus miles of border with the Republic of Mexico. We have 19 Indian reservations. We have the sixth-largest metropolitan area in Phoenix and two rapidly growing areas in Pima County and Yuma County."

Not to mention seven national forests and a slew of national-park lands.
The U.S. Attorney's Office may be prosecutor or defense attorney for civil or criminal cases generated by any number of federal agencies: the FBI, DEA, IRS, National Park Service, Postal Service, Bureau of Reclamation, Customs and Immigration services, Border Patrol or Forest Service. It handles most cases on Native American reservations. It investigates civil-rights cases, such as the probe of the Scottsdale Police Department over discrimination against minority bar patrons. It handles other investigations passed up from lower jurisdictions, such as the Arpaio case. Phoenix is a hotbed of telemarketing and other varieties of fraud. It has an unhealthy collection of street gangs.

Despite the ever-increasing case load and the burgeoning population growth, the district has the same number of federal judges it had 20 years ago. The U.S. Senate wrote three new Arizona judgeships into its juvenile justice bill, which passed the House of Representatives last week.

"This is the only state I've worked in where DEA isn't the biggest customer," says Raffanello.

Because the federal government handles criminal cases on Indian reservations, as former U.S. Attorney Janet Napolitano says, "This U.S. Attorney's Office does more homicide prosecutions than any other in the country, with the exception of the District of Columbia."

But Napolitano also refers to an "exploding case load, particularly in southern Arizona: immigration and drugs. Those numbers went up dramatically during my last two years in office and they continue to go up.

"You're not talking about an increase of 10 or 50 cases per year," she continues. "You're talking about an increase of hundreds of cases per year."

People and contraband flow through the border like fluids through a membrane, and that osmosis will continue as long as times are bad on that side of the border and good on this side. With a shaky economy, political unrest and recent natural disasters, times are very bad in Mexico and parts of Central America.

One of Rivera's first official acts was to designate a staffer in the Tucson office as his official border liaison. He has assiduously lobbied Congress for more money and more personnel for border issues.

"This sector is the busiest sector," Rivera says, and he claims that in March alone, 60,000 illegal immigrants were detained at the Arizona border. In fiscal year 1998, 385,000 aliens were caught crossing the border, he says. This year, with several months left in the fiscal year, more than 550,000 have already been detained. There's no telling how many crossed without detection.

So in these desperate days, it may be an efficient coincidence that both the Arizona U.S. Attorney and the district's special agent in charge of the FBI are Mexican-born Spanish speakers. (When they are together, they sometimes exchange pleasantries in Spanish.) Both downplay the coincidence.

"The U.S. Attorney's Office here, and Jose in particular, has done a good job of helping us all focus on the issues," says FBI head Guadalupe Gonzalez.

Rivera passes the praise back to Gonzalez.
"I have to give Lupe a lot of credit coming in here," he says. "He really has made the FBI an international firm that does get cooperation. If you're looking at Mexican cooperation on a particular investigation, you have to credit Lupe completely."

But other officials say that more important is the ability of Gonzalez and Rivera to communicate directly with Mexican law-enforcement officials without the usual language and culture barriers.

"Having worked with different teams at the border since 1973, this is the best situation I've seen," says the DEA's Raffanello. "Although I think it's a work in progress, the cooperation between the two [governments now is] unprecedented."

"Do I think it's significant that the head of the FBI is Hispanic, and Rivera is the federal prosecutor?" asks Douglas Mayor Ray Borane, whose city is in the middle of the border crisis. "I think it's not only significant because of their cultural background, but in their ability to interact and speak the language. There's so much lost in interpreters translating for you."

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