United Nation’s Bangura visits Boalt, delivers frank words on sexual violence in conflict

(Left to right) The Human Rights Center's Kim Thuy Seelinger and the United Nation's Zainab Bangura speak about sexual violence in conflict at Boalt Hall on Feb. 18.

Zainab Hawa Bangura, the United Nation’s Special Representative of the Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, spoke to UC Berkeley students and community members at Boalt Hall on February 18 in a dynamic interview-style conversation with Kim Thuy Seelinger, director of the Human Rights Center’s Sexual Violence Program. These two experts discussed the serious problem of conflict-related sexual violence, the role of courts, the experience of men and boys, and hopes for advancements in the field, in an event sponsored by the Miller Institute for Global Challenges and the Law, International Human Rights Law Clinic, Human Rights Center, and Boalt Hall Committee for Human Rights.

Bangura attributes her current appointment at the UN, which she has held since September 2012, to her past work as founder and director of the largest humanitarian organization in her home country of Sierra Leone, where she led significant work to document wartime atrocities. She has 20 years of practical, political and diplomatic experience in the fields of governance, conflict resolution, and reconciliation in Africa. As the founder and chair of the Movement for Progress Party, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (she was the second woman to hold this position), and the Minister of Health and Sanitation for Sierra Leone, Bangura advocated for affordable health care and the elimination of genital mutilation. She has also been instrumental in managing numerous peace-building initiatives.

Seelinger directs the Human Rights Center’s teaching and research on conflict-related sexual violence. Her fieldwork in Uganda, Haiti, Liberia, Kenya, and Vietnam, in conjunction with her academic focus on the legal and health implications of sexual and gender-based violence, has led to groundbreaking research initiatives with direct policy implications.

Bangura’s and Seelinger’s perspectives and warm candidness fueled an enlightening conversation. Read on for excerpts.

Kim Thuy Seelinger: What do you hope to accomplish in this term as the United Nations Special Representative to the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict?

Zainab Bangura: My biggest wish is to make sure we prosecute people and send the message that it is a crime. It’s not a second-class crime that happens to second-class citizens. It’s a war crime. It’s a crime against humanity. If you commit it, irrespective of who you are, or where you are, we will go after you.

KTS: How do we define conflict-related sexual violence?

ZB: The perpetrator and the victim have to have a relation to the conflict. It’s in the form of rape, forced marriage, forced pregnancy, forced sterilization….[The definition] has helped me to be able to do my job because it is very specific. You know, we have violence happening in South Africa but I can’t get involved, because . . . you have to have the legal opinion that it is a “conflict country.”

But we do believe that if you don’t protect your women in peace, you will not be in a position to protect them in conflict. Obviously, the issue of sexual violence does not happen by accident, it is related to the social structure in the society and community.

KTS: We have more and more evidence and reporting about men and boys being victims of rape and other types of sexual torture in conflict. How does your office deal with this issue?

It is different than with women, in a sense, because it happens often during interrogation, when [perpetrators] want to solicit information, under detention, checkpoints. Basically, it’s used as a tool to intimidate and force information from these men—and on occasion, to humiliate them. In Bosnia, we only learned quite recently that men were sexually abused. I met a man who was forced to sexually abuse his own son. . . . It’s something that has been so hidden.

The challenge we have is that the whole structure and the mechanism of the UN was geared toward protecting women. We still believe that 95 percent of the victims or more are women—but more and more evidence is coming out that we have men who have been sexually abused.

KTS: I remember there were a few studies that came out in the past few years with data about a surprising number of men who mentioned that they had been violated and that there had been female perpetrators involved in some cases. It’s such a nuanced problem. We’re just starting to understand the whole spectrum of harm that happens and to whom. How can the UN move in that direction?

ZB: How do we re-orient ourselves? We’re getting people to accept that it’s not just a women’s issue. It’s a development issue. It’s a human rights issue. It cuts across gender and age . . . .My youngest victim as I sit here is 3 months old; I’ve seen a 75 year old blind woman in Somalia; I met an old man in Somalia who saw his two daughters—4 and 6 years old—being raped. . . . No continent has a monopoly on it.

KTS: Often the perpetrator is a state actor or a military agent. I was wondering if you could comment on the particular challenges to accountability that arise when it’s actually the state that is implicated in perpetration.

ZB: In some cases, the key perpetrators invariably are the security forces. It’s the weakness of the state that leads to conflict in most cases. So the government’s reaction, from my personal experience in Sierra Leone, is to increase the military. They don’t give them adequate training. They don’t even know where they are. They deploy them for long periods of time without following up on them.

And when I spoke to military leaders in the DRC, I asked why they have so much sexual violence. They said it’s because there’s no accountability. They said, “If people commit the rape and they are investigated and prosecuted and forced to serve their sentences, we would control the rape.” And I think that’s what we’re trying to do with governments—to go into agreements with the military and get a plan of action to support military prosecutors. The rule of law has collapsed. If the police commit the crime and you ask a police officer to handle the investigation, what do you expect?

KTS:  As you say, each conflict has unique features. On the other hand, the UK Prevention of Sexual Violence Initiative is underway and they are hoping to draft a protocol for the documentation and investigation of sexual violence related to conflict. Can you tell us about the initiative, the protocol and its key features, and how it can actually be useful on the ground?

ZB: First, I need to commend the British government . . . .The leadership has been tremendous at the global level. One of the biggest challenges we have in terms of sexual violence is prosecution. How do you prosecute without collecting the evidence? If you don’t collect the evidence in time and don’t do it extremely well, you destroy the case.

To actually get a protocol that puts the standards in place that would [establish] how you document and collect the evidence . . . how you protect it . . .how you use that evidence to prosecute. . . . It’s fantastic. . . . We have the legal framework. The next step is implementation. How do we make sure that perpetrators are prosecuted, witness are protected? . . . We will use that tool to train in countries to work with judiciaries, the police, from country to country.

KTS: What is the possible contribution of academia to help with this work?

ZB: By doing a lot of research and work on it, we tell the right story. It will help us to put faces and names and identities behind stories.

We need to generate more information to understand the scope and characteristics of sexual violence . . . .When does it happen and how? [There is] so much information we still don’t have in terms of [male victims]—we still don’t have the statistics, so it’s very difficult to convince partners to put aside services for men . . . . You don’t send a man to a gynecologist or a midwife. It requires resources, planning.

That’s why we need to develop a relationship with the academy, to help shape our response.

Audience question: Please share some of your experiences in Sierra Leone before you became the Special Representative to the UN Secretary-General:

The reason why I became a women’s rights activist is because I was discriminated against . . . . My father was a Muslim cleric and my mother was illiterate. By the time I was 12, my father wanted to marry me off to some grandfather. My mother refused and so he kicked us out of the house.

My mother was not allowed to go to school, but my mother insisted that I go to school. She knew what happened to her. The male members of the family were educated and she wasn’t educated. . . . And I think by virtue of education and the position I came to accept . . . . everyone realized the value of the girl child.

In my village, they still don’t have a school; they don’t have water supply, a health facility. It’s the real village life. But today, I am head of that family. In one generation I have moved from being a chattel, a property, somebody who cannot make a decision, to being the head of a family. Today no decision is being made in that community without reference to me. What changed this was education. All of a sudden, they realized: She’s educated. And because of that education she has been able to achieve one of the highest positions in the country. Now she’s respected in the country and around the world. She’s our daughter.

The society in which I was born and the society I grew up with and the society in which I see now in my country in are completely different. And the war, one way or the other, helped. In the area or region where I come from, we didn’t educate the girls. When people went to refugee camps, they saw humanitarian workers who were women…and it changed their perception. When we came back after the war, the enrollment of the girl child in school increased by 300 percent. They now realize that we have to educate our daughters. . . . It’s changing. I feel proud because now I am like a role model. Everybody has seen that if she can do it, so can we. I take that as an opportunity to be an inspiration and hope to young women and to tell them, ‘I did this so that you can.’


Forensic Experts Bolster El Salvador’s Intended Investigation of El Mozote

Dorila Márquez (second from the left) talks about losing her parents and other family members in the massacre of El Mozote.

Forensic experts from around the world met in El Salvador last week to support the country’s first tentative steps toward investigating what is considered among the most heinous atrocities in Latin American history—the massacre of El Mozote.

By inviting the Human Rights Center at the UC Berkeley School of Law and forensic scientists from Argentina, Guatemala, and Bosnia-Herzegovina to El Salvador, the Supreme Court of Justice gave hopeful signs that it intends to comply with the sentence of the Inter-American Court to investigate the massacre that took place in December 1981.

Like the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980 and the six Jesuit priests in 1989, the massacre of El Mozote is both a painful reality and a tragic symbol of the darkest days of the war. Over three days in the eastern department of Morazan, the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion terrorized and killed more than 1,000 villagers, among them some 400 children—the youngest only three days old.

Since the end of the 12-year war in 1992, El Salvador’s Amnesty Law has prevented the prosecution of those who committed human rights abuses during the armed conflict. However the Inter-American Court ruled in October 2012 that the massacre of El Mozote violated international law, specifically the American Convention on the “rights to life, to personal integrity and to personal liberty” and other articles related to rape, torture, and the murder of children. The Court sentenced El Salvador to investigate the facts of the massacre, identify and prosecute those responsible, and return remains of the victims to their next of kin.

El Salvador was asked to take action within two years—by December 2014—but the clock ticked for a full year without progress. Until now.

Finally, under the new leadership of El Salvador’s provisional Supreme Court Justice Florentín Meléndez Padilla, who took office last fall, the state has begun to comply. Meléndez and the Supreme Court’s Institute of Legal Medicine invited the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation, the International Commission on Missing Persons in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and UC Berkeley’s Human Rights Center to spend four days in El Salvador offering scientific advice and insights.

The meeting has helped to establish progress on El Mozote in case any political winds (and political personnel) shift with the presidential elections—the second round of which will be held on March 9.

“We do need great wisdom in these four days so that we can agree to an action plan—not in months but in weeks,” said Dr. Cristián Orrego Benavente, director of the Human Rights Center’s Forensic Program, at the outset of the meeting, expressing the need to act quickly.

The forensic scientists who visited El Salvador have decades of experience searching for graves, exhuming bodies, identifying remains, and scientifically documenting crimes—often with the participation of grieving families. The Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team has worked on El Mozote intermittently over two decades under the sponsorship of Tutela Legal, the former human rights office of the Archdiocese of the Catholic Church of El Salvador.

While El Mozote’s massacre has been well reported by journalists (most notably Raymond Bonner in The New York Times, Alma Guillermoprieto in The Washington Post, and Mark Danner in The New Yorker) and intensive investigations and exhumations have been performed by the Argentinians, the state itself has never investigated the crime.

During meetings at the Supreme Court of Justice in San Salvador, the visiting scientists raised critical questions for their Salvadoran colleagues who will conduct the work, including: How will the families of the victims of El Mozote be involved from the very beginning of the process, as mandated by the Court? Are there more graves to exhume and what will happen if family members don’t want to unearth them? What are the best forensic tools to use in this investigation? What are the challenges associated with investigating a massacre that happened 32 years ago?

The scientists and Salvadoran colleagues traveled more than three hours east from San Salvador to El Mozote to see the massacre sites and to hear testimonies from victims’ family members. They also spoke with the legendary Belgian priest, Father Rogelio Ponselle, who has worked with the community for some 20 years, and visited the monument that honors the victims.

“This is where we found fifteen people—five from my family and ten from another,” said Orlando Márquez, standing on a hill and pointing to a stretch of field flanked by cows where El Mozote’s dead were once strewn. It’s a story he has told several times in the 32 years since the massacre.

Now, with a new state-sponsored investigation, he and other family members will likely recount their stories again—this time for the official record.

Despite the ubiquitous history of political violence in the country, Salvadoran forensic investigators simply have not had the means to investigate or formally prosecute massacres. Moreover, they are burdened by simultaneously investigating an all-consuming gang war marked by brutality that has produced a steady stream of disfigured and mutilated victims.

All agreed that the scientific expertise of forensic experts who have worked in the trenches throughout Latin America, Africa, and Europe will be critical to the future of El Salvador’s investigation of El Mozote. Last weeks’ meetings marked an essential step toward revisiting and beginning to repair a wartime atrocity and accurately preserving historical memory—for surviving families like that of Márquez and for all Salvadorans.

Rapid next steps—including meetings with families, scientists, prosecutors, and Salvadoran officials—will hopefully propel El Salvador toward satisfying the Inter-American Court’s ruling and seeking a measure of truth and justice for victims and the nation as a whole.


Pader Girls Academy: education for Ugandan girls

A message from Stephen Cody

I recently returned from Northern Uganda where I interviewed war survivors to learn more about their experiences participating in cases at the International Criminal Court.

While there, I also visited the Pader Girls Academy, which the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation helped to found in 2002 with assistance from the Human Rights Center. The school educates girls who had been held captive by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

When abductees escaped from the LRA, they often had nowhere to go, particularly if they gave birth while in captivity. Today, 450 students are studying at Pader, perhaps the only school in Northern Uganda where young mothers can attend classes and also care for their babies. The school has provided safe shelter, psycho-social support, and a rare pathway to a new life for hundreds of young women.As director of the Human Rights Center’s Atrocity Response Program, I deeply appreciate the chance to meet people rebuilding their lives and communities and to be part of an organization that is making an impact.



Please help us meet the $100,000 challenge match from the Sandler Foundation. A gift of any size matters! Please donate now. 


Attack on Salvadoran human rights organization Pro-Búsqueda

November 15, 2013

Three armed men attacked the offices of the Asociación Pro-Búsqueda de Niñas y Niños Desaparecidos in El Salvador yesterday, dousing computers, archives, and classified documents with gasoline and setting them on fire, according to news reports and a press release issued by Pro-Búsqueda on Thursday night.

The Human Rights Center at the UC Berkeley School of Law joins Pro-Búsqueda—our partner organization in an effort to reunite families torn apart by the Salvadoran civil war—in denouncing the attack and calling on the Salvadoran government for a full investigation of the crime.

Pro-Búsqueda works for human rights in El Salvador by supporting parents who lost children to forced adoptions during the war and uses DNA technology to help family members find each other.

Just hours after the incident at the organization’s office, a Pro-Búsqueda staff member was accosted at a bus stop, intimidated, and followed by three men. The employee arrived at work “in a state of shock,” according to Pro-Búsqueda’s press release.

The attack on Pro-Búsqueda comes in the wake of the closure of Tutela Legal by the Archdiocese of San Salvador, and a recent decision by the Salvadoran Supreme Court to accept a case challenging the nation’s Amnesty Law–a law that has protected former government and military officials from accountability for grave human rights and war crimes violations for more than two decades.

We stand behind Pro-Búsqueda’s statement: “Now more than ever, our voices have to unite to denounce the different acts of violence that have recently affected human rights organizations in El Salvador.”


You may have received a message yesterday from Angela Fillingim regarding our work with Pro-Búsqueda to reunite families like hers that were separated during the war in El Salvador. Read Angela’s message here

For more information about the Human Rights Center’s work with Pro-Búsqueda or to speak with Forensic Program Director Cristián Orrego Benavente, please contact Communications Manager Andrea Lampros at 510.643.7215, 510.847.4469, or alampros@berkeley.edu.

Visit the Human Rights Center’s website.


Now I have two families

A message from Angela Fillingim
The work of the  Human Rights Center fundamentally changed my life and helped restore the part of my identity that I had been missing  for 20 years. I was forcibly “adopted” from El Salvador in 1985 during the Salvadoran civil war. In 2006, with the help of the Human Rights Center and its partner Pro-Búsqueda (Asociación Pro-Búsqueda de Niñas y Niños Desaparecidos de El Salvador), I was finally able to reunite with members of my biological family.

I learned that for my birth mother, Blanca, “adoption” was not her choice. During the war, Blanca’s brothers were executed and her family home destroyed by gunfire. She, along with my surviving family, fled to the outskirts of San Salvador where, shortly thereafter, the army started bombing her neighborhood. Blanca initially placed me up for adoption—at the behest of a lawyer—to guarantee my physical safety and economic security. When she had second thoughts, the lawyer threatened her life and mine if she did not go through with the process.

Now I know the truth about my origins and Blanca had a chance to tell her story—one she had been afraid to tell for 20 years. Meeting my family gave me the chance to understand my identity as a child of the Salvadoran civil war and gave me back the history the war had stolen from me.

Now I have two families—my family in the U.S. and my family in El Salvador.

I will always be grateful to the Human Rights Center and Pro-Búsqueda for giving me the chance to have a relationship with my biological family, especially for the seven years I had to know my birth mother before her passing earlier this year. I am just one example of how the work of the Human Rights Center changes lives, giving victims the opportunity to tell our stories and to find peace.



The Human Rights Center has received a $100,000 challenge grant from the Sandler Foundation. So far we have raised $80,546 toward the match. We need your help to meet the match and to support important human rights work. Please donate now!


A message from a former Human Rights Fellow

A message from former Human Rights Fellow Keramet Reiter

In the summer of 2010, I was honored to have a Human Rights Center fellowship. My host organization was the National Council on Crime and Delinquency in Oakland, California. They supported me intellectually as I pursued a critical branch of my dissertation research, interviewing former prisoners who had previously spent three months or more in solitary confinement while in U.S. prisons. Through the support and encouragement of the HRC fellowship advisers and community of scholars, I made my first public presentations about the detrimental effects of solitary confinement at the annual fellows conference and in the local news media.

Over the past three years, I have continued to speak publicly about these issues, recently testifying before the California legislature about the state’s overuse of solitary confinement. And I have maintained an ongoing relationship with my Human Rights Center host organization, serving as a member of their Institutional Review Board, reviewing criminal justice related research protocols.

I am a committed supporter of the Human Rights Center because of the way the center’s work, in combination with the fellowship program, promotes creative, rigorous research, and facilitates policy-oriented reform through this research.

In other words, the center a fulfills critical role bridging academic research with human rights advocacy.


The Human Rights Center has received a $100,000 challenge grant from the Sandler Foundation. So far we have raised $80,011 toward the match. We need your help to meet the match and to support important human rights work. Please donate now!

Join us for our annual UC Human Rights Fellowship Conference on Friday, Nov. 8, from 12:30 to 5:30 p.m., at International House on the UC Berkeley campus. Visit our website to learn more.

Read about our 2013 Human Rights Fellows!




The Human Rights Center’s first years: finding mass graves in Bosnia

A message from Faculty Director Eric Stover
When I came to UC Berkeley in 1995, the Human Rights Center was just a year old—a brilliant seed of an idea planted by our founders, Herb and Marion Sandler. We had set up shop in Stephens Hall on the UC Berkeley campus with one bright graduate student, a few desks, and a rather lethargic computer.

Human rights were under siege from Bosnia to Rwanda.

Just a month into my job, Richard Goldstone, the Chief Prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, asked if I would accompany a team of prosecutors to eastern Bosnia to locate several mass graves believed to be near the Omarska prison camp—a dreadful concentration center run by Serb paramilitaries.

I spent weeks trudging through the snow until I finally found one of the graves just outside the camp. Since the area was still occupied by Serb forces, I conducted a preliminary excavation, marked the site on a map, and quickly left, hoping it would remain undisturbed. Years later, a forensic team completed the excavation of the grave and several other massacre sites nearby.

Convictions followed, and the prisoners of Omarska finally had their day in court—they had names and a past that the killers had tried to erase. Justice was finally done.

Over these past 20 years, the Human Rights Center has witnessed, listened, analyzed, collaborated, and reported the facts—helping to shape the world’s response to atrocities. I’m proud of what we’ve been able to do and am optimistic about the next 20 years.

We’re grateful that the Sandler Foundation is supporting our work by issuing a matching challenge to raise $100,000 from new or expanded pledges. We need your help during the next three weeks to meet this matchPlease donate today. 



Human Rights Center convenes global workshop on war crimes investigations

The first Salzburg Workshop on Improving War Crimes Investigations is bringing together technology innovators, human rights investigators, International Criminal Court prosecutors, legal scholars, and others this week to examine and debate the most effective use of cyber-technology in documenting and investigating atrocities.

Held at the Schloss Leopoldskron in Salzburg, Austria—a castle once occupied by the Nazis and now used for global meetings—the workshop promises to yield new ideas for  how people on the ground, who are closest to conflict, may document genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in court-admissible ways. A public report that outlines conclusions and protocols will be made available in the coming months.

“Documentary evidence can be minutes from meetings, telephone intercepts, written orders, or information gleaned from cellular devices,” explained Professor Eric Stover, faculty director of the Human Rights Center. “The aim is triangulate such evidence with testimonial and physical evidenced obtained at the crime scene.”

The workshop, organized by the Human Rights Center in partnership with the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS), is funded by Humanity United, the Open Society Justice Initiative, the Oak Foundation, and Sigrid Rausing Trust. It is the first of three Salzburg Workshops to focus on technology and improving war crimes investigations.

Professor Eric Stover, faculty director of the Human Rights Center, delivers opening remarks at the first Salzburg Workshop on Improving War Crimes Investigations. Also pictured are Dr. Camille Crittenden, deputy director of the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) and Professor Laurel Fletcher, director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic at UC Berkeley.



How CA Bikes is making a difference in Uganda

During my UC Human Rights Fellowship in Uganda this summer, I took a day trip with CA Bikes founder Christopher Ategeka deep into Kyenjojo village to meet a recipient of a hand-pedaled tricycle, which can be ridden by people unable to use their feet. CA Bikes makes bicycles and wheelchairs to distribute to HIV-positive youth and other vulnerable children in Uganda who live between 8 and 20 kilometers from their schools.

The boy we met, a 17-year-old named Valist, lived in a room with walls made of mud, wood, and newspapers. When we walked into his 8 x 8 room, I saw blood pooled on his sheets and smelled a horrid odor of rotting flesh.

Valist greeted me and thanked Chris for the tricycle. Through the translator, I immediately asked what happened and the boy shared his story

Valist was walking to school on a Thursday morning eight years ago when he fell ill with a fever. A few weeks later, he lost all sensation in his lower body and was no longer able to stand or walk.

Receiving a hand-powered tricycle from CA Bikes allowed him to continue to do daily functions and go to school for a short period. A bright boy, Valist was doing very well in school. But after a couple of years without going to the hospital and seeking treatment, his condition had worsened.  We were told that he could not feel or move his lower body, and that rats were even seen biting and feasting on his feet.

The ordeal caused tension at home and led his parents to argue. Valist says his father was jailed for six months for trying to cut his throat. The father felt his boy’s illness was a burden and wanted to end the family’s misery and Valist’s suffering. Valist’s mother felt otherwise and continued to fight for and care for him.

I watched Valist knitting a reed basket—facing the most difficult, unimaginable circumstances—and I felt a range of sadness, uncertainty, and hopelessness. Ironically, I did not see those same feelings in the boy. Valist seemed so full of life and determined to overcome his hurdles.

Although Chris arranged for the boy to be transported from his home and brought to a hospital the next day, we soon found that other challenges awaited us. First, hospitals in Kyenjojo do not perform services such as picking up sick or dying patients from far villages. We had to privately hire nurses and buy fuel for the ambulance. Moreover, even after we were able to help Valist get to the hospital—which is government-funded and thus more affordable—we learned that only one surgeon in the entire town could help him. This surgeon was also running a private clinic where he could make more money.

We also wanted to place Valist in the care of a school or organization where his health could be monitored daily and where he could start attending classes again. In addition to helping children access school, CA Bikes connects kids with health care and other services in an effort to meet more of their needs. Cases like Valist’s are also why CA Bikes has ventured to designing and distributing motorcycle ambulances.

While the experience of meeting Valist was heartbreaking for me, the work of CA Bikes, coupled with the young boy’s strong will, have also inspired me.

The views expressed are that of the individual Human Rights Fellow and not necessarily of the Human Rights Center at the UC Berkeley School of Law. 

Assembly-line justice at the border: Investigating the human costs of Operation Streamline

Sergio Savala sat in a migrant shelter in Nogales, Sonora, just an hour south of Tucson, Arizona. For the past four years, Savala had tried three times to return to his family in the United States. His son was born since he was first deported, and he has seen him once when his wife brought their child to the border. Savala was able to touch his son through the enormous steel pillars (in Nogales) that separated him from the U.S. and his family. But making consistent visits could threaten the child and mother, as both are undocumented and driving long distances in Arizona without a driver’s license can result in being stopped and then deported. Now, after having been imprisoned under a program known as Operation Streamline, Savala struggled with whether to try again since getting caught this time would mean at least six months in a federal prison. The thought of abandoning his family brought tears to his eyes. He didn’t think he would return. But then again, “there are times when the desire to be with your family wins,” he said.

See here for my story about Operation Streamline and interview with Savala that appeared on ABC News/Univision in July.

The criminalization of reentry, on the southern border, comes as a result of an eight year-old Border Patrol program known as Operation Streamline in which all migrants detained on the border, from Texas to Arizona, are required to serve prison time for the felony charge of reentering the United States unauthorized. Here in Tucson, Arizona, the federal district court processes seventy migrants every business day through Operation Streamline. The detained are packed into a courtroom, many spilling over into the jury box. They are cuffed hands and feet with a chain around their waist to keep them from lifting their arms too high. The judge calls as many as eight people forward and the defendants shuffle to the stand, their shoes still dusty from their trek across the Arizona desert. Within minutes the migrants plead guilty and are sentenced to up to six months in detention for their “criminal” offense of re-entering the U.S. All seventy migrants are processed in the space of 30 minutes to an hour depending on the judge. They are then shipped off to private prisons in Florence, Arizona—just an hour and a half north of Tucson.

Operation Streamline has received scathing criticism from organizations like the Warren Institute, the ACLU, and Human Rights Watch. Yet, with the support of Senator John McCain and others, the program seems set to become a permanent approach to dealing with unauthorized immigration. 

Steve Fisher is a student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and a 2013 UC Human Rights Fellow, a program sponsored by the Human Rights Center at the UC Berkeley School of Law. He is spending the summer investigating Operation Streamline in Tucson, Arizona.