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Killing of Hispanic man stokes distrust between the city of Pasco and its police

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About 10 years ago, Antonio Zambrano-Montes arrived in Pasco, Washington, in pursuit of what his family simply describes as “a better future”. He left behind a village in the municipality of De Aquila in the southern Mexican state of Michoacan. It was reportedly a place with no roads and no shops to buy clothes, where residents would travel by horse and cart to the next town to buy basic provisions and most worked as farm labourers.

He brought with him his wife and two daughters to the city of around 70, 000 people, in America’s north-west.

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“[He wanted] a better life for his family, to provide for his girls, so they could have a better future. The American dream. Every Mexican, every Hispanic that crosses the border, they want the American dream. A better future than what they had,” said his cousin Maria Madrigal-Zambrano.

Related: Mexico condemns ‘disproportionate’ use of force by US police in Pasco shooting

But in the years that followed, Zambrano-Montes separated from his immediate family, lost his house to a fire and found himself staying, for at least one short period, in the city’s crowded homeless shelter. His life met an abrupt, violent end last week, when he was shot dead by police who pursued him across a busy intersection. He was unarmed, but had allegedly been throwing rocks at traffic.

His death has left members of his extended family devastated and bewildered. The incident, the fourth fatal police shooting in Pasco in seven months, has also shocked the city, contributing to growing distrust among the majority Hispanic population towards a majority white police force.

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Video footage of the shooting has gone around the world, prompting comparisons with the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, drawing activists to the city and provoking condemnation from the Mexican government. In death, Zambrano-Montes has become part of a different American story: that of the unarmed man, shot dead by police.

‘I still can’t believe it’

Martha Zambrano, his aunt, was the last in the family to see Zambrano-Montes alive. It was a chance encounter in downtown Pasco, two weeks before the fatal incident. She was expressionless when recalling the details.

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“I just remember hugging him, telling him that I loved him. He said he loved me back. It was just a hug.”

She sat at a dining room table in a family member’s home on the outskirts of Pasco, about four miles from the scene of the shooting and spoke in Spanish as her daughter Yesenia translated.

The brutal last moments of Antonio’s life, captured on video and viewed over 1.5m times on YouTube, continue to haunt her.

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“I keep replaying visions in my head – on and on,” she said. “I still can’t believe it.”

The 23-second film shows Zambrano-Montes chased across the street by three officers, after he had reportedly been throwing rocks at traffic on a busy intersection. His arms flail and appear raised at one point. He is running away, crosses the road and momentarily turns. The pursuing officers then open fire, after attempting to use a Taser, and Antonio falls to the ground in a heap. He doesn’t get up.

All three officers have been placed on administrative leave, as police departments from neighbouring cities convene a special investigation unit (SIU) inquiry into the shooting.

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The family said at a protest on Saturday, which saw up to 1,000 people march on the streets of Pasco, they wanted all three officers prosecuted.

“Justice for me would be to prosecute the three that were in the incident, the three that murdered him, the same way that they would prosecute a regular citizen, regular human beings,” said Antonio’s cousin Maria, a 30-year-old retail worker.

‘The people united will never be defeated’

Chunks of the exterior wall at Vinny’s Bakery on Lewis Street – the site of the shooting – have been removed for ballistics. A memorial sits outside, candles arranged in a crucifix are extinguished. “Hands up don’t shoot,” reads a sign.

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Even after the memorial is taken down, Vinicio Marin, the 42-year-old owner of the bakery where Zambrano-Montes had been a regular customer, says he will be reminded every day.

“It broke my heart. It should never have happened. It was all too big,” he says in Spanish through a friend who translates.

Marin’s bakery opened two months ago. He came from a family of bakers and arrived in the US 22 years ago, also chasing a dream.

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“This business, this bakery has been one of my life dreams. Seeing this [shooting] happen, has crushed it,” he says.

Hispanic residents, who make up 56% of the city’s population , remain a relatively disenfranchised majority in Pasco. Just one out of the city’s seven-member council is of Hispanic descent and the police force, made up of 67 officers, is only 22% Hispanic.

But Antonio’s death has begun to galvanise the community. The protests on Saturday, attended in the majority by Hispanic residents of the Tri-Cities, were led by the chant “El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido” (“The people united will never be defeated”).

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On Monday, Felix Vargas, leader of the Pasco Hispanic community group Consejo Latino, wrote to US attorney general Eric Holder , demanding a federal investigation into the shooting. The letter argues the SIU investigation has “no credibility whatsoever”, citing the three other cases of police shootings in Pasco in seven months where the SIU has absolved officers of all responsibility.

Mario Abraham, the 34-year-old owner of Grand Auto Repairs across the street, saw the shooting. “That night I don’t sleep,” he says. “Only a couple of minutes.”

Like many others interviewed by the Guardian, Abraham says the entire event has left him more distrusting of local police.

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“I’ve got family. Every day I drive my car, sometimes I get tickets. I like to go fishing and now I got to keep an eye on what I’ve got in my car – when you open the windows to the cops who can see in you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

One detail in particular stands out for Abraham. He, like other witnesses, claim the officers handcuffed Zambrano-Montes as he lay on the floor dying.

Neither the Pasco police department nor the SIU will confirm or deny this allegation, but Captain Ken Roske, of the department’s support operations, says: “The handcuffing of any restrictive subject until the situation is under control would be standard ‘best practice’.”

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Police say that one of the three officers involved in Zambrano-Montes’s shooting came from a Hispanic background, although from an English-speaking home. It is unclear if any of the officers addressed Antonio – a monolingual Spanish speaker – in any language other than English.

Roske also maintains that each of the four fatal police shootings in Pasco since July, while regrettable, “are so uniquely different” that it’s not possible to call them a trend.

The first saw a 34-year-old man shot dead after he refused to drop a knife. Another, in September, a 25-year-old man was killed by police after he refused to drop a weapon that later turned out to be a BB gun.

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“All the others didn’t have a video,” says 30-year-old Jesus Aguire who works at Chuyito’s barbershop a little further down on West Lewis street. “What I see is that they chased him down and gunned him down. It makes me feel less safe.”

Final days

The Tri City Union Gospel Mission in the east of the city is opening its doors on Sunday morning. Mist engulfs the city, making it hard to see much further than a block. The shelter’s 45 bunks are permanently full, so managers open the chapel upstairs to another 50 who sleep on the floor.

It is likely Antonio would have slept up there when he came to the mission for roughly four days just before he died, says a staff member who does not want to be named.

He signed Zambrano-Montes in, but had not seen him for a couple days before the shooting. It is unclear where Zambrano-Montes was living at the time of the shooting. “Once they’re out of the door, it’s hard to keep track,” says the worker, pointing to the dozens of men sitting in the recreation area, many of whom have been at the mission for months. The employee estimates around 15% of the men here are recovering addicts, but others are there for a variety of reasons: refugees, those with disabilities, others who have simply lost their jobs.

Zambrano-Montes did not strike the worker as exceptional – over 21% of Pasco’s resident live below the poverty line – almost twice the state average. The mission dispenses food and clothing to around 100 families a week in the vicinity. They receive no public funding.

A complete picture of the last few months of his life is difficult to assemble: even his closest family members describe him as “inward”, consumed with “private things”. His cousins say he was a hard worker, who laboured as fruit picker for various companies in the area. His immigration status remains unclear, although he certainly did not posses a social security number.

Antonio had previously been living in a converted garage, which burned down in late January after a fire started in the living room, according to local media reports . He was trapped inside and had been rescued by two passing public works employees.

Martha says he had assured her he found a place to stay. News that he had spent time at the mission comes as a surprise.

She observed a change in Antonio about two months ago. Again, precise dates and locations are hard to come by, but Antonio had fallen off a ladder at work while picking fruit. He told her both his wrists had been broken and metal plates had been inserted after surgery. He could no longer work and had begun asking Martha for money to pay the rent rent and to buy food.

The accident left Zambrano-Montes feeling depressed, says Martha.

“He was a little sad, he said that his arms hurt. Those days he was not working.”

He also experienced depression six years earlier when he separated from his wife and two daughters, who moved to California under circumstances that remain unclear. His children, now both teenagers, have never returned to Pasco.

But Martha is dealing with issues beyond the death of her nephew. She too has no home and is staying with relatives after she was forced to sell her house when her husband died five years ago. Her new partner was killed two months ago in a traffic accident; a drunk driver coming the wrong way down the street collided with their car. She survived.

“It’s not just the hurt from Antonio. I’ve been through a lot. I’ve lost everything. My partner, the car, and then I receive the call that Antonio had been shot,” she said.

Her plan had been to suggest to her nephew that they move in together.

“But I never got the chance,” she said.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2015

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