Interview: Phoenix Migrant Activist Irineo Mujica on U.S. and Mexico Crackdowns

Irineo Mujica
Irineo Mujica/Twitter
Irineo Mujica
Irineo Mujica was surprised when he received a call at his home in Mexico from a Phoenix New Times reporter last Tuesday, just an hour after federal prosecutors in Arizona announced they would seek a retrial of humanitarian aid worker Scott Warren.

“That’s still going on?” he asked.

Mujica, a 48-year-old former Phoenix resident, immigration activist, and acquaintance of Warren's, was never charged in the case, but was named as a possible co-conspirator. He's been a central figure in federal prosecutors’ evidence against Warren, though noticeably absent from the proceedings in U.S. District Court in Tucson.

The federal case against Warren for aiding asylum seekers and border crossers in Arizona has received international attention, especially after Warren's trial ended in a hung jury on June 11.

Though Warren’s charges of conspiring with Mujica have been dropped, Warren still faces two counts of “harboring an undocumented immigrant” in a retrial. He could serve two decades in prison if found guilty. Mujica may be called to the United States to testify on Warren's behalf.

Yet as the government ramped up for a second chance at putting Warren behind bars, Mujica hasn't been following the case in which he plays an important role. As the director of the migrant advocacy organization Pueblo Sin Fronteras in Mexico, he'd been busy with other things.

The migrant women and children he’d met at shelters, often from Central America, were coming in record numbers and had different needs than single male migrants. He's been making more calls on behalf of rape survivors for HIV and pregnancy testing, and more trips to mercados to barter for abandoned food.

But he's also been preoccupied with his own legal problem: He's being prosecuted in Mexico on a charge of smuggling migrants in a case that could have lasting repercussions for humanitarian work in Mexico. If he's convicted, he could be sentenced to 24 years in prison.

The Arrest

Mujica has long come under fire from the U.S. government, particularly during the Trump administration’s tenure. His work alongside the migrant caravans at the U.S. border in 2018 evoked the President’s criticism on Twitter.

"After that tweet, I became a target of just about everybody: the right wings, the media," said Mujica. "People tried to burn me alive in my apartment."

In March, leaked documents obtained by NBC San Diego revealed that Mujica and Sin Fronteras were at the center of a secret government database tracking activists and journalists tied to the October caravan.

Then, following Trump's demand for more help by Mexican authorities, officers arrested Mujica on June 6 near one of his shelters in the Sonora-Arizona border town of Sonoyta. In a press release, Mexican federal prosecutors accused Mujica and Cristóbal Sánchez, another longtime migrant rights activist, of illegally transporting Honduran migrants across Mexico for money.
click to enlarge Irineo Mujica - IRINEO MUJICA/TWITTER
Irineo Mujica
Irineo Mujica/Twitter

The arrests came as Mexican and U.S. officials met to negotiate an immigration enforcement deal that would stave off threatened tariffs on Mexican imports — the Trump administration has promised a 5 percent tariff on all Mexican goods if the country did not do more to curb illegal immigration through Mexico to the United States.

“It's not that they want me,” Mujica said. “They want what I represent.”

A week later, as Warren, a volunteer with the group No More Deaths, faced trial last month in Tucson, Mujica and Sanchez underwent a 20-hour hearing in Tapachula, Mexico. The judge found the evidence against the two men insufficient: Prosecutors couldn’t prove either had been in the cities where their crimes were said to have taken place.

In a press statement on Facebook, Pueblo Sin Fronteras said the Mexican government arrested the activists to “present them as trophies for the U.S. government.”

The pair was released, but the charges against them remain. It's unclear when the next court date is.

“Their chip is immigration”

Mujica has worked to ensure the safety of migrants passing through Mexico — a journey that often involves kidnapping, rape, and theft — for the last 20 years. But things are different under this new government, led by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, he said.

“All the work we did throughout the years has changed,” said Mujica. “The Mexican government is willing to play the game, and sometimes we are in the middle of what they hate. They want things they are bargaining for, and their chip is immigration.”

Mujica was born in Mexico, but credits Phoenix as the birthplace of his activism. His family emigrated from Mexico in the 1980s. He attended North High School and worked in the city for several years. But then, his father suffered a heart attack.

“When we began in the Phoenix area, there was not too many Latinos,” said Mujica. (Statistics show the state had less than half the population of Latinos it does now.) He believes his father received inadequate care at a local hospital because he did not speak English.

“I made a promise to my dad, and to God, when he died. Maybe I couldn't help him, but I will help people like him,” said Mujica. He began working with migrants and, after hearing about conditions on the journey to the U.S., moved to Mexico to travel migration routes alongside Central American travelers.

“A lot of times in the United States, people who are fighting for their rights are fighting for privilege, or to get a status,” said Mujica. “In Mexico, people were fighting for their life.”

Too often, their lives end during treks through the harsh Arizona desert after crossing the border. No one knows the true scope of the tragedy, but a report by activists in 2016 estimated that nearly 9,000 bodies of migrants have been found in the desert since the expansion of border enforcement in the 1990s. So far this year, at least 74 people have died crossing the Mexico border into Arizona, according to the Pima County Office of Medical Examiner and the Yuma County Medical Examiner's Department.

The staggering crisis has led many Arizonans to try to make the migrants' passage safer by placing water containers in the desert or providing food and shelter, leading to the U.S. government crackdown on No More Deaths, Warren, and others.

Mujica primarily tries to provide a safe shelter for these migrants in Mexico before they attempt to cross into the States. He said he remains committed to his work today. Although he has both U.S. and Mexican citizenship, he isn't considering returning to the U.S. to avoid trial in Mexico.

“I am not going to run from doing humanely for another human being — what we all should do,” said Mujica. “Even though I'm afraid every day — this work is the right thing to do. If I ran from this, it's like running away from my father, running away from the promise I made, and running away from my beliefs and my religion.”

“Sooner or later, the truth will come out — I know I am innocent,” said Mujica. “So that's why I'm staying here, why I don't cross the border.”

The one exception?

Mujica was never charged in Scott Warren’s first trial, but much of the U.S. government's case appeared to rely on text messages and calls between Warren and Mujica. Still, federal prosecutors never asked Mujica himself to testify in court.

“You know, it seems like I became a person they made up,” said Mujica. “They haven't called me. I can't even defend myself when they talk about me.”

Warren's defense attorney, Greg Kuykendall, said last week he’s attempting to subpoena Mujica for Warren’s second trial, and said in an email he's confident Mujica will "provide exculpatory testimony in Scott Warren’s case."

Mujica says he will “definitely” come to the U.S. to testify in Warren’s retrial if subpoenaed.

“I still have a lot of faith about the United States, and in humanity,” said Mujica. “Sometimes, we seem to go over to the left or to the right, but we always seem to balance and do the right thing. I have a lot of faith that what's happening now does not represent what we are as Americans.”

Mexico’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs did not respond to requests for comment on this story.