Language barrier stings prosecutors
Arizona Republic
Jan. 29, 2007

Richard Ruelas, columnist

The three men gave brief, sometimes- disjointed statements to officers. Then they entered a courtroom where a judge entered a plea of not guilty on their behalf. That was nearly a year ago. Since then, the three human-smuggling suspects have sat in jail while attorneys and court staff try to figure out what language they speak.

A Maricopa County Superior Court judge ruled Friday that the charges against the men will be dropped if the courts can't find someone to translate trial proceedings into the men's indigenous languages by Feb. 14.

It would be another blow to Attorney General Terry Goddard's plan to target smugglers by investigating their wire transfers.

Earlier this month, Western Union got a different judge to partly halt the program, citing constitutional issues.The case against the three men appears solid.

On March 6, investigators followed two vans leaving a Western Union office in Mesa that is known to be used by smugglers. Those vans went to a Wal-Mart parking lot.

When officers approached the vans, according to a Department of Public Safety report, one of the drivers, Roberto Santis-Lopez, fought briefly with officers before he was handcuffed.

Another person in one of the vans directed officers to a nearby apartment complex. There, inside two units, officers found 63 undocumented immigrants, mostly from the Mexican state of Chiapas. According to the report, their smuggling value was $113,400.

Miguel Gomez-Santis answered the door of the first apartment. Andreas Aguilar-Sanchez was hiding in the shower of the second apartment. Police suspected the two were smugglers because their clothing was clean, while the immigrants' attire was dirty. Immigrants also described the men as having free run of the apartment and watching television.

But almost immediately, the language barrier showed itself. Transcripts of initial interviews with the men show they gave odd and unresponsive answers to the Spanish-language questions posed by officers.

Other suspected smugglers in the case have reached plea agreements that resulted in probation. One man, the suspected ringleader, is serving jail time. The court won't accept plea agreements from these three men, though, unless it is sure the men understand what's going on.

Jose Colon, the attorney for Aguilar-Sanchez and a fluent Spanish speaker, said he saw right away his client did not fully understand him.

"He's functional in Spanish, but like a 4- or 5-year-old kid. No grammar,"
Colon said. "Except for basic stuff . . . you lost him."

Colon told the court's translation staff about the issue in April. The Office of Court Interpretation and Translation Service found a man fluent in Tzotzil, the Mayan language spoken commonly in Chiapas, where the men are from.

But that professor from California was in Chiapas until September. He didn't make it into Phoenix until Jan. 18. And after speaking with the men, he testified before a judge that not only did the men not speak Spanish, but they also didn't speak Tzotzil. He agreed to try to find someone who can speak their particular Mayan language.

In telling court staff to find the suspects translators, Judge David Cole quoted a 1974 federal ruling that said the right of suspects to a court interpreter avoids the "Kafkaesque specter of an incomprehensible ritual which may terminate in punishment."

One of the most clichéd questions in the immigration debate is: What part of "illegal" don't you understand? For these men, it's most of it.

Reach Ruelas at (602) 444-8473 or