Samaniego Confronts Controversy Over Checkpoints

Samaniego confronts controversy over checkpoints

By Tammy Fonce-Olivas / El Paso Times
Article Launched: 09/13/2007 12:00:00 AM MDT

After battling cancer for the past few months, Sheriff Leo Samaniego told El Paso County on Wednesday that he will not seek a seventh term.

Samaniego, who has been back at work part time since Tuesday, will be ending a 50-year career in law enforcement.

The career began in 1956, when he applied for a job with the El Paso Police Department. When he retired years later to run for sheriff, he was deputy police chief.

As sheriff since 1984, Samaniego, 75, worked to get the El Paso County Jail up to standards. He streamlined the sheriff's department, improved its image and eventually created the first sheriff's department in Texas to become accredited.

But Samaniego's decision to join the fight against illegal immigration in his most recent term has caused controversy.

In 2005, Gov. Rick Perry initiated Operation Linebacker, a border security plan that called for beefing up border sheriff's offices to act as a second line of defense to the Border Patrol.

El Paso County received $375,000 to take part in the program.

Traffic checkpoints that resulted from the county's participation in Operation Linebacker drew much criticism.

While Samaniego said sheriff's deputies were using the checkpoints to find drivers without licenses and liability insurance, many who were stopped said they were asked for Social Security cards and about their immigration status.

Texas law prohibits peace officers from engaging in activities designed to uncover undocumented immigrants.

In May 2006, more than 2,000 residents of El Paso County signed a petition asking Sama niego to resign, saying that de puties were overstepping their bounds by checking immigration papers and violating civil rights.

But a month later, Samaniego suspended the checkpoints and referrals to the U.S. Border Patrol based only on a person's immigration status.

Samaniego, who reiterated that his deputies were enforcing public-safety laws and did nothing wrong, said in a statement that the suspension was “in order to abolish any perception regarding individuals' constitutional rights.”

The suspension was applauded by civil-rights groups, which claimed that deputies' activities had spread mistrust and fear in low-income immigrant communities on the outskirts of El Paso.

But in June, Samaniego reinstated the checkpoints, which have continued along with the controversy.

During his absence from the Sheriff's Office during his illness, Samaniego's duties have been performed by Chief Deputy Jimmy Apodaca Jr. Samaniego said he had hoped Apodaca would run for sheriff because he doesn't support the current candidates for sheriff.

Apodaca, who also was a longtime El Paso police officer and supervisor before going to work for the Sheriff's Office, said he had no plans to run.

“When the sheriff leaves, I will leave with him,” Apodaca said.

One of the candidates for sheriff is former El Paso Police Chief Carlos Leon.

Contacted Wednesday, Leon said that Samaniego's decision just means he has one less candidate to worry about.

Leon says he hopes to be a more traditional sheriff.

“I'm committed to the citizens of El Paso. I've been a public servant for 30 years, and I want to come back. Having been the chief of police in a town that was rated Number 2 in the nation (for a low crime rate) is quite an accomplishment,” he said.

“I think the sheriff's department's biggest drive is the safety of the residents of the county, and controlling crime,” he said.

Sheriff's deputies “are not trained to uphold federal laws. Several agencies are charged with that task,” Leon said. “Car thefts are up; gang activity is increasing. The sheriff's department has enough to handle with what's going on in the county. ”

Leon said he hoped to form community boards in various areas of the county to tell the Sheriff's Office what it's doing right and wrong, and to keep the department apprised of crime in their neighborhoods.

Alejandro “Al” Patio, a retired supervisory deputy with the U.S. Marshals Service who also plans to run for sheriff in the March 4 Democratic primary, said Wed nesday, “That's going to open up the entire candidate field.

“A lot of candidates have made it clear they were waiting for his announcement.” Patino said. “El Paso is going to lose a very significant leader in the community, and there will be some really big shoes to fill.”

Tammy Fonce-Olivas may be reached at; 546-6362.

Times reporters Ramon Renteria, Louie Gilot, Daniel Borunda and Laurie Mller contributed to this story.