This video shows members of the Pima County Sheriff's Department SWAT Team executing a search warrant at the Tucson, Arizona home of Jose Guerena Ortiz: an Iraq War veteran and young father whom they'd suspected belonged to a family-run drug trafficking ring. It captures perfectly how the drug war has been a tremendous failure.
According to a new update on the case by the Associated Press, in May 2011 Guerena had just come home from working a 12-hour shift at his mining job and was asleep when Pima County's friendly neighborhood SWAT commandos showed up and the above scene unfolded. Guerena's wife heard noise and woke up her husband, who grabbed an assault rifle; she says he was trying to defend her and their four-year-old son. Outside the family's front door, the SWATters announced their presence, got no response, broke the door down, and noticed Guerena had a rifle. Seventy-one shots later, and Guerena was bleeding and dying—struck 22 times. During the bullet bonanza Guerena had never fired his gun, which was found with the safety on.
You might think that Guerra must have been a pretty serious criminal to have warranted a visit from the SWAT team. According to the sheriff's department, the evidence against him consisted of the following:
- A tip that Guerena was the ringleader. The sheriff's office worked with an informant; informants have been known to lie.
- His brother and brother's father-in-law were being investigated for drugs
- One time he was with his brother and a man with guns and drugs showed up
- He had friends who dealt marijuana in bulk (half a ton)
- During a 2009 traffic stop, cops seized a gun from Guerena; others in the car had weed on them
- In September 2009, cops stopped a truck in which Guerena had been the passenger and found "commercial-sized rolls of plastic wrap that they say are commonly used to package marijuana" inside. The truck had just left Guerena's brother's house
So, his past wasn't perfect, and his previous involvement with guns gave the SWAT team a reason to believe he might be armed and dangerous. But what would have happened if, instead of putting on all the wartime bling and breaking down the door, an officer or two had knocked on Guerena's door? While it's true that no-knock warrants are justified in cases where law enforcement officers might face immediate danger, Guerena had no record of committing violent crimes. He just owned guns, like millions of other Americans. Would a less-dramatic approach have achieved a better result? (Besides avoiding injury, no-knocks help officers preserve evidence, but if Guerena had been a "ringleader" then he would have had too much evidence lying around the house to dispose of it all in the time it takes to answer the door, no?)
The AP makes no mention of any videos or photographs of Guerena conducting a drug deal, records of law enforcement agents purchasing drugs from him, incriminating cell phone records, or any other type of evidence that would strongly suggest his involvement in a drug trafficking operation. While serving with the Marines, other soldiers and his supervisors praised him for his maturity and leadership; his coworkers at the mine say they trusted him. After the raid, police did search Guerena's house and a storage space rented to his mother and found military gear plus accounting ledgers that they say "make it clear to us that this is drug money and money owed to a number of individuals." However, that evidence came to light after the raid. Guerena did serve in the military, so it's quite possible that the gear they found related to his two tours in Iraq. The ledgers could have belonged to other family members being investigated.
Despite the ledgers and other evidence police have found—including money and weapons—the authorities haven't made any arrests six months after Guerena's death. Reps from the sheriff's office say the investigation is ongoing. The authorities maintain the SWAT attack at Guerena's home—and all the shooting—was justified. "What reasonable person comes to the front door and points a rifle at people?" sheriff's chief of investigations Rick Kastigar asked the AP. You might turn his question around and ask what reasonable law enforcement unit would dispatch a SWAT team to execute a search warrant on a guy who had never been convicted of a violent crime.
"Outraged friends, co-workers and fellow Marines have called the shooting an injustice and demanded further investigation," AP reports. Guerena's wife has filed a lawsuit against the county and the SWAT team officers. Outraged community members have held at least one march.
So here's what we've got: One guy dead, no arrests, still tons of drugs on the street with no sign of abatement, and now a lot of people mad at the cops. Sounds like a botched deal to me. Probably feels really cool to storm somebody's house while wearing paramilitary gear, though.