Santa Ana residents and community members held a vigil on Thursday to raise awareness and to protest the recent detention of 27-year-old Edgar Vargas by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.). Vargas, who is currently being held at the Theo Lacy maximum-security jail complex in Orange, was on his way to court to fight a case of excessive use of force by Santa Ana police officers when he was intercepted by unidentified I.C.E. officers.
Vargas’ ordeal began on the night of June 20th of this year when he was arrested near the 400 block of Sycamore St in Santa Ana. Officials claim they were responding to a “burglary call” when they encountered Vargas, who was spotted “mumbling incoherently” outside a back yard.
Vargas, who had previously struggled with mental health issues, fled the scene, engaging police on a short pursuit. After being detained and arrested, Vargas was charged with “attempted burglary”, “resisting a peace officer”, and “battery upon a peace officer.” Police claim Edgar inflicted “great bodily harm” on one of the officers for which he was then charged with a higher-level felony.
Edgar’s mother, Olivia, only had the police’s story to go by about what happened with her son, who was hospitalized following the arrest. It wasn’t until she canvassed the neighborhood where it happened that she found a witness whose surveillance cameras contradicted the police’s version of the event. The surveillance footage shows Vargas getting down, facing the ground, complying with police just before several officers began to brutally beat him, delivering many blows to the head, kicking, and forcefully swinging a flashlight at him. The video then shows Edgar’s body being moved out of view when two other officers appear to notice the surveillance camera.
According to Miriam Grajales, who supplied the footage and witnessed the beating, the Santa Ana police was not interested in the video during the investigation of the case.
“In the beginning, the police did not care about the video,” explained Grajales, “I kept calling Internal Affairs, I kept calling the Sergeant and leaving messages and no one was interested in seeing the video. It wasn’t until the mother shared the video with local news more than fifteen days after it happened that they were interested.”
Last Monday, almost two months after the beating by police, Vargas and his family were leaving their home to attend a preliminary court hearing in regards to charges placed on Edgar, three unmarked vehicles pulled the family over. With guns pointed at the family, unidentified I.C.E. officials arrested Edgar and took him into custody.
Vargas’ sister, Sareth, explained that the family was aware through their own home surveillance cameras that an unmarked Chevy Impala had already been patrolling their home that morning.
“We saw that they were going around the house,” explains Sareth, “When they stopped us, they wouldn’t identify themselves. We kept asking what agency they were from. It wasn’t until my mother got in front of one of their vehicles that they finally told us that they were with immigration [I.C.E.]”
After arresting Vargas, officials took the family’s car keys and did not return them for over thirty minutes after they had left.
“I think what they [I.C.E. Officials] did is an express kidnapping,” expressed Edgar’s grandmother, “Their vehicle did not have a license plate, the officials did not want to identify themselves, and they did not have a search warrant…It is a violation of human rights and a violation towards the people.”
Then on Thursday during a vigil, Vargas’ family, Santa Ana residents, and community supporters marched from the Santa Ana police department to the I.C.E. building located in the 34 block of West Civic Center Drive. With banners and posters in hand, family and supporters demanded the release of Edgar Vargas while emphasizing an end to deportations and a halt to police brutality.
“This place is of special significance,” explained a member of R.A.I.Z., a migrant youth-led group actively organizing against detentions and deportations, as the march reached the I.C.E. bus exit gate, “This is where people that are being deported from Santa Ana come through when they take them to Tijuana. This entrance has been blocked [by community] at least three times in the last five years for that reason.”
Once in front of the I.C.E. building, participants turned the vigil into an open forum for Vargas’ family and residents to share their experiences with Edgar’s case and the daily trauma of living in fear of I.C.E. and the police.
“We held this vigil to stop the deportations and the injustices that are being made against our people,” shared Edgar’s mother, Olivia, “They [I.C.E.] took away my son. It was an important court date for him on Monday so that they could drop the charges that they are accusing him of…We want I.C.E. to let him free so that he could keep fighting his case. His case on all the lies that the police is inventing, because they are all lies!”
“Chief of police [Carlos] Rojas has a campaign that says, ‘If you see something, say something’” shared Grajales, “But when it dealt with being witnesses to police brutality, then it didn’t interest them [the police]…This means that his campaign is only for the citizens, for the community, so that we point the finger at each other - but when it deals with police brutality they want to cover it up with a finger.”
“Now as a witness, for speaking out, they have been following me,” she added, “Now they are treating me like a criminal as well.”
“In this country there is an organized crime that is called ‘the police’, and that is called ‘immigration’,” shared a member of Copwatch Santa Ana, a community-based collective whose primary principle is promoting community self-defense through directly monitoring and documenting police conduct.
“We want the people to know that we are with them,” she added, “As children of migrant parents, as children of parents who break their backs fourteen hours a day, working to put food on the table...they don’t just have us working, we have poor schools, we don’t have access to health resources, and then they kill us on the streets - that’s an atrocity.”
“We are also fighting so that my son can stay in this country,” shared Marta Sixtos, mother of also-detainee Samuel Sixtos.
25-year-old Samuel Sixtos was arrested by Santa Ana police in April of this year. Despite being protected through the California TRUST Act, which protects migrants with “low-level, non-violent offenses” from being turned over to I.C.E. by local law enforcement agencies, Sixotos was transferred turned over to I.C.E. custody just a few days later.
He is currently held at the Adelanto Detention Facility, Southern California’s largest detention center located 40 miles north of San Bernardino. A planned court date to decide his outcome is scheduled for Friday, September 5th.
Vargas remains in the Theo Lacy complex in Orange. Edgar’s family explains that even if released by I.C.E., Vargas now faces a warrant for his arrest for failing to appear at the scheduled preliminary court hearing.
While national media has recently directed their attention to the issue of police brutality and militarization following the killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown in recent weeks, Santa Ana residents also shared their too-familiar reality of police violence in their communities.
“The police is the largest gang here in Santa Ana,” shared one resident.
“We need to unite and help each other against this brutality,” added Olivia, “If we see an injustice occurring against our children by officers, we must immediately unite so that this stops!”
The group then continued a message of solidarity amongst community members in combating police violence and made regular references to the people’s recent uprising in Ferguson, Missouri and locally in Anaheim in 2012.
“Can we protest like they did in Anaheim! So that they can listen to us!” questioned Grajales towards the group, which then transition into a chant of, “The people united, will never be defeated!”