By Anita Wadhwani
SHELBYVILLE, Tenn. December 31, 2001 Thirteen years ago, he got his start in this country by scrubbing dead chickens for a living, but soon rose to become a prominent businessman - a grocery store owner - and the leader of this town's rapidly growing Hispanic community.
Now Amador Anchondo-Rascon sits in a Chattanooga jail. He is a key figure in the biggest U.S. case ever involving corporate smuggling of illegal immigrants, a man who calls himself `'jefe de jefes,'' or boss of bosses, according to federal authorities and local police.
His wife says he is an innocent man about to spend his second New Year's Eve behind bars because he dared to become more successful than some local residents think a Hispanic immigrant should.
His fortunes may soon rise again. His lawyer hints that Anchondo-Rascon, a former Tyson Foods employee, has information of value to the government's case against the nation's biggest meat-processing company.
Tyson Foods and six of its managers were indicted last week on immigrant smuggling charges. Anchondo-Rascon has not been indicted in the case, although the government says he was a conspirator who smuggled illegal immigrants for Tyson managers to Shelbyville.
"It's going to crack. It's going to be big," said Michael Friedman, the Atlanta-based attorney. A deal between Anchondo-Rascon, 41, and the federal government is `'very possible,'' he said, and details may emerge as soon as Jan. 7, his next court date.
Tyson has denied the charges, saying its employees acted on their own.
When Anchondo-Rascon first started working at the Shelbyville Tyson plant in 1989 - after briefly working at a plant nursery in McMinnville, Tenn. - he was among the earliest wave of Mexican immigrants to work at the plant.
For six years, he washed chickens for Tyson while his wife, Robertina, now 37, worked on the packaging line.
In 1995, the couple decided the Hispanic population in Shelbyville, a town of 13,000, was large enough to support a Mexican grocery store, and they used their savings to open Los Tres Hermanos.
Shelbyville police say it was about that time, during the mid-1990s, that they began noticing counterfeit driver's licenses and Social Security cards during routine police work.
"Mine started with a missing juvenile,'' said Don Barber, then a patrolman with the Shelbyville Police Department and now retired and running a mobile home park. "The grandmother gave me the immigration card that was issued to her granddaughter, so we'd know what she looked like. I kept thinking, `Something doesn't look right, something doesn't look right.' So the next day I had somebody call Immigration."
Soon, Barber and several officers from the Shelbyville police and Bedford County sheriff's departments had formed a "task force on the illegals," he said. `'Not an official one. We'd just get together and compare notes." Officers from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service would occasionally arrive in town to pick up people held in the county jail and deport them, Barber said.
Meanwhile, Los Tres Her-manos was prospering as a steady stream of immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala arrived in town, most heading to work at the Tyson factory. The town's immigrants would soon make Bedford County home to the highest concentration of Hispanics in the state. Their presence became more and more visible with the opening of taquerias, video stores and trailer parks that now dot Shelbyville.
So it was at Los Tres Hermanos that the Hispanic community would gather to cash paychecks, buy groceries and socialize.
Anchondo-Rascon became a prominent resident known among both
the town's immigrant and non-immigrant communities. He would go
to court to translate for immigrants who got into trouble, police
said. White business owners would ask his help in collecting car
payments or vouching for the credit of
some Hispanic customers, his wife said.
"Just about everybody in Shelbyville knows Amador, I reckon,'' Barber said.
The only trouble back then, Robertina recalls, was when Amador's brother, Jesus, fled town after being accused of raping and trying to murder a Shelbyville woman. (He was on the Tennessee Bureau of In-vestigation's most wanted list for two years before being caught in Arizona in 1997.)
Except for that, "We were happy," she said.
Then, in 1996 or 1997, police began an undercover investigation of the store.
Barber, Shelbyville police officer Bill Logue and an INS agent
from Memphis began staking out the grocery store from the back
of Logue's mother's van. Logue said the surveillance was prompted
by "some concerns" police had about Anchondo-Rascon's
possible involvement in providing false documents
to the town's Hispanic residents. He wouldn't say what those concerns were.
Police recruited an informant who - to spare himself jail time for his own bad papers - agreed to try to buy some from Anchondo-Rascon.
From there, things mushroomed. More INS officials, the FBI, Internal Revenue Service, U.S. attorney's office, Departments of Agriculture and Labor, and others were brought in. The 2½-year undercover investigation eventually led to the 36-count indictment against Tyson Foods and its managers, charging them with conspiring to import illegal immigrants to work at 15 Tyson Foods plants across the South, including the one in Shelbyville and another in Union City in northwest Tennessee.
Anchondo-Rascon was arrested in July 2000 and sent to a Lubbock, Texas, prison at the request of the U.S. Border Patrol district office there, said Logue, who made the arrest. Logue said he was unsure of the charges. In August, Anchondo-Rascon was transferred to the Hamilton County Jail.
The Border Patrol in Texas referred all calls to the Nashville INS office, which directed reporters to the attorney general's office in Chattanooga, which was not available for comment Friday.
Since the arrest, Robertina has been running Los Tres Hermanos and raising their three sons.
Last week, she pulled down a file from behind the counter and laid several letters from supporters of her husband on the countertop.
"He has always been friendly and helpful and a very clean gentleman," wrote Kennith Wessner on Celebration City Motors letterhead. "We sometimes had problems collecting from the Hispanics in the neighborhood, and when we would call on him for assistance he was always willing to help us out in any way he could."
Robertina says her husband was set up by local police who, she asserts, thought he had become more successful than a Hispanic resident ought to be.
"It's a lie. Someone wanted to buy papers, but my husband told them that his business was too good to get involved in anything illegal.
"They discriminate against us. They arrested my husband, but why aren't they charging him with any of this? Because he is innocent. They harass my sons. They try to scare everybody here."
The Anchondo-Rascon boys, ages 13, 15 and 16, have had scrapes with local police. One spent some time in a juvenile detention facility, Robertina said, because a white boy started a fight with him and he defended himself.
Few contacted in Shelby-ville's Hispanic community wanted to talk about An-chondo-Rascon.
"We have to be neutral about what we say,'' said David Perez, who recently formed the Hispanic Action Club, a cultural organization. `'Tyson is a very big employer. It's a small town.''
( Reprinted from the Center for Immigration Studies, Washington, DC. http://www.cis.org)