• Investigation on the excessive use of force by San Diego police officers.
By Luis Alonso Pérez
On Dia de los Muertos night, Maria Manzo lit up a candle in front of the photo of his 23 year old son Jesus Eduardo Manzo, who died three months ago while running away from Vista Sheriff Deputies, who opened fire on him when they feared of getting shot by the suspect. Reports indicate that he was only carrying a “Leatherman” style tool in his pocket.
On that night members of the Vista community got together in a vigil to commemorate Jesus and other five Latinos who have been fatally shot by police officers, three of them within a five day period.
“I am very sad, because I will never see my son again. He is not coming back with a vigil or a prayer; nothing is going to bring him back. I feel worn out, tired, without a will to live” said Maria Manzo, who described Jesus as an excellent son because he never raised his voice or disobeyed her.
But for authorities, Jesus Manzo wasn’t seen the same way, because he had been involved in criminal cases in the past. He pleaded guilty for breaking into a vehicle in 2001, and for being under the influence of methamphetamines in 2004. However, people close to Manzo say that he was trying to change his life since the birth of his seven month old daughter Anahi.
On the day Jesus died, Maria Manzo was at work, when she came back, she received the painful news that her son was dead. “I don’t know what happened that day because I wasn’t there. I haven’t had any type of reports from authorities, they haven’t contacted me, so I don’t know anything.”
The other five Latinos involved in fatal shootings in Vista died in similar conditions as Jesus Manzo. Five days before his death, on July 28, Sheriff Deputies shot and killed Sergio García Vasquez while attending a domestic violence report, because he attacked them with a ten pound dumbbell. On the night of July 29, a day after Garcia’s incident, Sheriff Deputies fatally shot Jorge Ramírez after being chased on foot for being the suspect of an armed robbery. Officials opened fire at a short range when they suspected Ramirez was reaching for a gun in his clothes, but they only found a knife.
Mario Moreno, a community activist thinks that racial issues played an important roll in all of these cases, and says himself has been the victim of these types of situations because of racial profiling. “Young people in this community have learned to fear the police, they don’t see them as their benefactors, they see them as the oppressors who come to intimidate them”.
Lieutenant Hernando Torres of the Vista Sheriff’s Station doesn’t believe that race had anything to do with these incidents. “I don’t think people can actually believe that I’m going to allow deputies to go after Hispanic community when I myself am Hispanic. I don’t wear the uniform 24 hours a day. My kids are not blond hair, blue eyes. They’re Hispanic. When they drive to Vista, do you think they know they are my sons or daughters? They don’t know who they are. I expect from my deputies to treat every member of the community with dignity and respect and to be professional”.
“I want the community to be aware that they shouldn’t be afraid of us, we’re here to serve them. Many times when we have to use force to make arrest to make the community safer, we use force as a last resort. We don’t come to work everyday thinking that we’re going to brutalize or kill someone and instead we come to work hoping and thinking that we’ll make the community safer” said Lieutenant Torres.
However, people like Silvia Ramos believes that officers from the Sheriff’s department act very violently, since her son Sergio Ramos died in an incident with Vista Sheriff Deputies, after a neighbor called for help because Sergio Ramos was about to commit suicide with a knife. According to Mrs. Ramos, the officers shot him 15 times, 15 minutes after they arrived to the scene, supposedly because he tried to attack one of the officers.
“I believe that they act very violently, like they have a lot of anger towards us” said Silvia Ramos, when referring to the way some officers treat Latinos. One of the Sheriff Deputies who killed her son was also responsible for one of this year’s deaths. “I think that this should have some sort of consequence, because he’s still on the streets. If he likes killing so much, why don’t they send him to Iraq” said Mrs. Ramos.
These police procedures have outraged some members of the community, because they consider that this display of force was not necessary. That’s why neighbors like Silvia Ramos, Mario Moreno and other community members have decided to create the Coalition for Justice, Peace and Dignity, with the main objective of informing the people of Vista about their legal rights, as well as establishing a process of documenting abuses from the Sheriff’s department.
The Coalition has organized meetings and events to inform neighbors about what’s going on in the community, and to protest against what they feel are abuses from the Sheriff’s Department, like the protest held on October 22, where neighbors and mothers of the dead Latinos marched thorough the streets of Vista to demand justice for their children.
“Justice… justice is what I’m screaming for” said Maria Manzo “All of my life, I have worked and struggled alone for mi children, so that they could come and just take him from me that way, it’s not fair. I only want the guilty one to be punished, I don’t ask for anything more, but even if justice is served, my son will never come back”.
Miles Ashdown contributed to this story.