Canary. Photo by 4028mdk09.

“A federal judge found four humanitarian aid volunteers guilty on some of the charges against them for dropping off water and food for migrants at a protected wilderness area along the Arizona-Mexico border, notorious for the number of human remains recovered each year,” the Arizona Republic reported last Friday.

“The charges stemmed from an encounter with a U.S. Fish and Wildlife officer at Cabeza Prieta on Aug. 13, 2017” and revolved around paragraph the US Fish and Wildlife “added in July 2017, a month before the incident for which they were cited. It specified that leaving behind food, water, medical supplies and other aid in the refuge was not permitted.”

In the middle of what is now the longest government shutdown on record, the US Justice department decided to fast track citations issued in August 2017 by the US Fish and Wildlife and proceed with criminal charges against four of nine people, volunteers with the humanitarian aid group No More Deaths.

Natalie Hoffman, Oona Holcomb, Madeline Huse and Zaachila Orozco-McCormick were found guilty on Friday by U.S. Magistrate Judge Bernardo Velasco in Tucson, Arizona.

The trial began Tuesday, January 15, according to an earlier report from the Arizona Republican last week.

The case before U.S. Magistrate Judge Bernardo Velasco in Tucson is significant because, in the past, charges against humanitarian aid volunteers mostly had been dismissed.

It’s also the first such trial during President Donald Trump’s administration, which has pursued stricter enforcement measures at the border.

Arizona Republican; Jan 15 2019

“Hoffman had been charged with operating a vehicle inside the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Arizona, entering without a permit, and leaving behind 1-gallon water jugs and cans of beans.”

“The Defendants did not get an access permit, they did not remain on the designated roads, and they left water, food, and crates in the Refuge. All of this, in addition to violating the law, erodes the national decision to maintain the Refuge in its pristine nature,” Velasco wrote in his three-page order posted online Friday afternoon.

Desert landscape on the Cabeza prieta national wildlife refuge. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Prosecutors argument centered around the factual merits, that the defendants had “admitted in court to having willingly violated the refuge’s regulations for which they were charged.”

The defense arguments focused “on the religious and humanitarian mission of the organization to deliver humanitarian aid to prevent more migrant deaths,” and that their clients had been deliberately targeted and singled out, with both sides admitting that much of the problems stemmed from “rising tensions between humanitarian aid groups like No More Deaths and the Border Patrol.”

Attorneys claimed their clients were being charged even though the U.S. Attorney’s Office had allegedly said weeks before the incident that they were not interested in prosecuting these types of cases.

Under cross-examination, Brian Krukoski, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife senior officer, said he had received guidance about how to treat No More Deaths volunteers after the August incident.

He testified that he was told to direct any volunteer who inquired about a permit to his supervisor.

Krukoski also talked about a possible “do not issue” list for some No More Deaths volunteers.

But after questioning from prosecutors, he clarified that those instructions from the U.S. Attorney’s Office were part of the pretrial release conditions that pertained only to the individuals on trial.

Each now face up to six months in federal prison and a $500 fine. A sentencing date has not been set.

The trials for the other five charged, on “unrelated, but similar charges,” are set to begin in two months in Tucson.

“One of those volunteers is Scott Warren, who also faces a separate trial in connection to his felony arrest in February 2018 on charges of harboring undocumented immigrants.”

Friday’s verdict is the first conviction against humanitarian aid volunteers along the U.S.-Mexico border since 2009, when a federal judge found another No More Deaths volunteer guilty of littering for dropping off water jugs at the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, west of Nogales.

A year before, Dan Millis was found guilty of littering on the Buenos Aires refuge. However, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned his conviction.

Arizona Republic

“The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona,” the Arizona Republic reported, “which prosecuted the case, has not responded to requests for comment.”

The response from U.S. Fish and Wildlife:

U.S. Fish and Wildlife website Jan. 20, 2019

““I was there to leave water,” Hoffman said.”

On A Side Note (Opinion)

According to a local source *cough interviewed cough* by @ thenewsBlender, when asked for comment, they responded, “It just so happens to be on the border and it’s protecting nothing as far as I can tell. Maybe some lizards and a tarantula or two. It’s supposed to be a protected area but Border patrol romp through there all the time. So how protected is it?”

After learning the four had been found guilty of federal crimes and faced up to six months in federal prison, the source responded: “That’s horseshit and everyone knows it.”

Stay tuned.

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