Today, the Arizona Republic reported that the last month’s shooting of Juan Varela has been deemed a hate crime by the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office. Arizona resident Gary Thomas Kelley has also been charged with second-degree murder in association with Varela’s death. According to witnesses, Kelley called Varela a “wetback” and shouted, “hurry up and go back to Mexico or you’re gonna die” before shooting Varela in the neck. Ironically, Varela was a third-generation, native-born U.S. citizen. Yet, what’s even more troubling is the timing of the murder. Varela was shot just a little over a week after Arizona’s controversial immigration bill, SB-1070, was signed into law.
Initially, the Phoenix Police Department spokesman, Officer Luis Samudio, insisted that the shooting was not a hate crime. The Phoenix Police Union has also been a vocal supporter of SB-1070. Robert Shutts, homicide bureau chief for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, wouldn’t comment on whether SB-1070 was a factor in the case. However, Varela’s family has believed all along that the shooting was a hate crime and that SB-1070 is at least partly to blame.
A week after the murder, Varela’s family called on Gov. Jan Brewer (R-AZ) to “take responsibility for this hostile atmosphere they have created.” Following the announcement of the new hate crime charge, the family’s spokesperson told an Arizona local news station, “these pundits have really escalated this…to this point. Somebody has to do something to tone this down. It’s really out of control.”
Watch the Varela family’s reaction:
At this point, it’s difficult to verify what role, if any, SB-1070 played in Varela’s death. However, chances are the law has made an already toxic atmosphere worse. A growing number of Latinos are already the targets of discrimination and hate crimes in the U.S. SB-1070 has only exploited the public’s frustration with federal government inaction and played to their worst instincts. It’s brought neo-Nazis out. It was followed by the passage of a law banning ethnic studies and proposed legislation that seeks to overturn the 14th Amendment.
Perhaps most significantly though, it has pitted Latinos against their lighter-skinned neighbors. Regardless of what motivated Kelley to shoot Varela, the fact is that the Varelas and Latinos in general feel threatened by SB-1070. Perception alone is enough to divide Arizona in half. And in the end, if Kelley is found guilty of committing a hate crime, it will be difficult to dispute that the charged discourse surrounding the very recent passage of SB-1070 played no role in the violence committed against a Latino Arizona resident.