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Murder trial over death of Mexican migrant raises tension on US-Mexico border

George Allan Kelly, an Arizona rancher, is accused of shooting an unarmed man who was crossing his property with a group of undocumented migrants. The far right is hailing him as an American hero

George Alan Kelly
George Alan Kelly enters court for his preliminary hearing in Nogales, Arizona in February 2023.Mark Henle (AP)
Luis Pablo Beauregard

George Allan Kelly, a 75-year-old Arizona rancher, awaits trial for second-degree murder. The trial, which begins on Monday, will raise the temperature in a region that is already red hot, on the border between Mexico and the United States. On January 30, Kelly says he found the body of a man shot on his property near Kino Springs, a town just yards away from the frontier separating both countries. His defense claims that on that day Kelly heard a shot, then saw a group of men armed with high-powered rifles who were crossing his land without permission. He took an AK-47 rifle and fired a few shots in the air to try to scare them away. But Gabriel Cuen Buitimea, a Mexican migrant from Sonora, fell dead. The Prosecutor’s Office considers it murder.

Trials in the United States are driven by narrative. On many occasions two different stories collide in court. This is what will happen starting this week when Santa Cruz County Judge Thomas Fink presides over the first hearing. A jury will then determine which version of events sounds more convincing. Brenna Larkin, Kelly’s lawyer, has described the case as a political tinderbox because it involves putting an American citizen who has opened fire on an immigrant in the dock. The trial is taking place against a backdrop of polarization over border management, a debate that has been stirred up by the far right.

“This case could set off an anti-immigrant and anti-Mexican mood,” said Vanessa Ruiz, the director of consular protection for Mexico’s foreign affairs department. In a press conference from Nogales (Arizona), the official indicated that the case cannot go unnoticed. “The perpetrator fired at least eight times and witnesses have declared before authorities that the shots continued even when Mr. Cuen was lying lifeless on the ground,” she said. The Prosecutor’s Office has asserted that the deceased man was fleeing when he was hit by bullets. Autopsy photographs show that the bullet exited through the left side of the chest, and that he was shot in the back. The indictment has added a couple of assault charges, but the main one was changed from first-degree to second-degree murder. The government of Mexico wants to go back to the original charge. “Mr. Cuen’s daughter has told us that she wants justice to be done,” added Ruiz.

The version that defense attorney Larkin has provided could be similar to the plot of one of Clint Eastwood’s most recent movies. The defense claims that Kelly was eating lunch with his wife Wanda when he heard a shot. Through the window he saw his horse galloping away. He said he saw a group of men hiding among the trees on his ranch, where he has lived for 20 years. “They were armed with AK-47 rifles, dressed in khaki and camouflaged clothing and carrying large backpacks,” says the lawyer. The rancher went for his rifle and out onto the porch. “The leader of the armed group saw Mr. Kelly and pointed his AK-47 directly at him. Kelly, fearing for his life and safety, fired several shots with his rifle, hoping to scare them away from him, his wife, his animals and his home,” says the defense’s statement, made on February 9.

George Allan Kelly, 75, in a photograph taken after his arrest.
George Allan Kelly, 75, in a photograph taken after his arrest.AP

The Prosecutor’s Office believes that the facts were very different. Kelly himself has changed his version at least three times since 1.30 pm that Monday. In his first communication, the rancher contacted border patrol officers and not the emergency services. He said he had fired his weapon. “I can’t say much over the phone. But this is very bad. Send someone here,” Kelly recorded in a voice message on the cellphone of one of the agents, Morsell. On the second call, minutes later, he reported the group trespassing on his property. In the third communication, made almost three hours later, Kelly offered the version that the defense now maintains in court. The criminal group, he says, was made up of 10 or 15 people. The authorities that responded to the call did not find any trace of the people described by Kelly.

The prosecution presented a couple of witnesses. These two individuals said they were crossing the border right next to Cuen Buitimea in a group of seven or eight people. They were headed to Phoenix to look for work. Nobody was armed, according to court documents. They claim that Kelly never asked them to leave his property or gave any warning before pulling the trigger. One of these men, who is only identified as D.R.R., a peasant who has crossed the border at least six times before, stated that he saw Gabriel touch his chest and say “They got me.” Seconds later, he saw his eyes go white.

A premonitory story

Before being tried for murder, Kelly was a man with literary ambitions. He has self-published a couple of books, and prosecutors intend to use one of them against the accused. In Far Beyond The Border Fence, published in 2013, Kelly tells a modern Western tale about a rancher from southern Arizona who one day discovers that two of his most valuable horses are no longer on his ranch. The clues lead him to Mexico, where he must face a group of drug traffickers who have kidnapped a couple of relatives, in addition to his animals.

The work of fiction borrows heavily from frontier literature, a genre masterfully dominated by authors like Cormac McCarthy. But Kelly’s ideology soon seeps through his paragraphs. “Stopping the construction of the border wall [after the 2008 election] was a tactic by Washington politicians to try to buy the votes of Hispanics living legally and illegally in the United States [...] but it was a matter of life or death for all the families living near the border.”

Immigrants wait to be processed by the US Border Patrol after crossing the border from Mexico in Arizona.
Immigrants wait to be processed by the US Border Patrol after crossing the border from Mexico in Arizona.Qian Weizhong (Getty Images)

At another point, he describes the region as a “war zone” where the owners must risk their lives. In one scene, George, its protagonist, catches a couple of horsemen at his ranch who were looking to take more animals. He grabs an AK-47 and shoots them. One of them is wounded in the arm.

Defending the radical right

To large sections of the right, Kelly is being treated like a hero. Conservative television channels such as Fox News are covering the legal process. Kelly remains free after posting a $1 million bond.

The far right has organized to support Kelly. The alleged murderer of an unarmed immigrant has been supported by hundreds of people through GiveSendGo, a microfinancing platform that has helped movements such as QAnon, anti-vaxxers, the Proud Boys supremacists and Project Veritas, considered a far right organization. The GiveSendGo campaign had a goal of raising $250,000 to help with the defendant’s legal expenses. They are about to reach $350,000.

“Millions of patriots are with you, Mr. Kelly,” “God bless you,” “Americans need to defend America when our Government has decided not to,” are some of the comments from people who have invested in the cause. It is the same type of comment that those who are buying Kelly’s books on Amazon have left in recent weeks. The campaign was rejected by crowdfunding giant GoFundMe, which argued that they do not allow fundraising on behalf of anyone accused of violent crimes.

A Border Patrol truck drives along the US-Mexico border wall in Arizona.
A Border Patrol truck drives along the US-Mexico border wall in Arizona.ETIENNE LAURENT (EFE)

Brenna Larkin, Kelly’s lawyer, has made it clear in the preparatory hearings that throughout the trial she will insist that the region where her client lives is under threat, as it is part of drug- and people-trafficking routes. Attempts have been made to cast doubt on whether Cuen Buitimea was part of a gang of coyotes, the men who help migrants cross the border. Larkin claims that Kelly never fired “at” the men but “over” their heads. This is at variance with his literary characters, who open fire with an AK-47 against those who step on their property.

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