Longform

Rivera's Edge

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"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."

There has been a recent string of border-related indictments: the February bust of INS inspectors taking bribes to allow immigrants and contraband across the border; smugglers of drugs and people were indicted in May; in June a major drug dealer was successfully extradited from Mexico.

Rivera won't comment on any of those cases, but one law-enforcement official thinks that the flow of such cases will grow now that Rivera has been in office for a year and has gotten his office in order.

He meets frequently with the state's Mexican consuls to maintain lines of communication against future snafus.

He traveled to Douglas to attend town meetings and soothe local feathers there. Douglas area residents and city officials were demanding that federal government stanch the human flow of illegal immigrants. Frustrated ranchers on a few occasions held illegals at gun point until the Border Patrol arrived. Rivera visited with citizens to ease their concerns and to let them know that it was not legal to take matters into their own hands.

As mayor Borane points out, Rivera's own immigrant roots keep him from losing sight of the human plight that drives poor Mexicans to enter the U.S. illegally.

"He understands people wanting to work," Borane says. "He understands people having trouble with the system when they get over here. I'm really impressed with his ability to grasp the situation."

Several mornings a week, summer and winter, Jose Rivera jogs along the Arizona Canal. On one recent morning, he reflected on the seemingly lucky breaks he's gotten in life.

"I know if I were starting out now, it would be more difficult to get where I am with my background."

Indeed, he's conscious of the challenges facing inner-city Hispanics. He has visited schools to read to elementary students. He's kept his own kids in central Phoenix public schools so that they would be exposed to diversity. He speaks like the liberal Democrat he is.

But we all make our "luck," and Rivera's lucky breaks are more likely the result of being very bright and very low-key at the same time. He has not had to look for work; like the U.S. Attorney's job, work has always found him.

The first two cases he handled as a Justice Department attorney just out of law school went to the U.S. Supreme Court. He had always thought he'd practice law in Flagstaff, but he kept getting invited here and there--to San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Phoenix, to private practice and to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

One of the difficulties of writing a profile about Rivera is that he has no enemies, and his many friends have no anecdotes to tell about him. They uniformly answer queries about Rivera by saying that he's a hell of a guy, a good lawyer with a big heart and a good sense of humor.

"You always get a straight answer from him, but not with a straight face," says Councilman Phil Gordon, a longtime friend of Rivera's.

He reads avidly--biographies, histories, detective novels. He is fond of the Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He jokes that his two daughters fight over which of them will get to name her own daughter after a character from Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. There is a character described in another Garcia Marquez novel, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, as a mother who never leaves the house, but who nonetheless can inform her children on everything that is going on in the world as she sweeps the kitchen.

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Michael Kiefer