For years, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio billed himself as “America’s toughest Sheriff.” He took a multi-pronged approach to maintaining his reputation as a tough lawman, from building the notorious Tent City—an outdoor jail where inmates suffered in dangerously hot weather—to his embrace of racially discriminatory tactics.
In recent years, the Sheriff’s seeming indifference to constitutional and human rights has backfired: beset by a series of lawsuits that cost the county millions, he lost his re-election bid this year.
On Monday, AZ Central published a lengthy profile of the man at the center of the class-action lawsuit that led to the unraveling of the Sheriff’s 24-year-long career. Manuel de Jesús Ortega Melendres, who entered the US on a tourist visa, was arrested and kept in custody for nine hours, despite not having broken any laws. “I’m not a criminal, and I’ve never been one,” Ortega Melendres tells AZ Central.
“I was thinking a thousand things, that the worst was about to happen. I had heard that the authorities in the United States were understanding, that they did not have a tendency to abuse their power. That day, they showed me the complete opposite of what I had heard. That’s when the fear began,” he said.
Deputies had surveilled Melendres and his associates, then pulled them over on the pretext that they’d been speeding. When Melendres handed the officer his tourist visit and permit, which showed he had the right to be in the US, he was arrested anyway. When he and the others tried to pray in their cell they were told to stop. “This is not a place of prayer. This is not a temple, please shut up,” the deputy reportedly told them.
The class-action lawsuit stemming from Melendres’ arrest revealed that the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department regularly engaged in racial profiling. A statistical analysis of stops and arrests found that deputies unlawfully stopped and arrested people based on the assumption that they were Latino, according to the ACLU. The department also responded to racist complaints by constituents. “If you have dark skin, then you have dark skin! Unfortunately, that is the look of the Mexican illegal who are here ILLEGALLY,” read one.
Arpaio might face 6 months in prison for violating the judge’s orders that he stop his immigration crackdowns.
Neither those charges or losing the election seem to have chastened the Sheriff. “I am a fighter,” he told Phoenix New Times in his exit interview. “I went down in a fight. I didn’t just surrender. That’s what I am. Especially when you know you’re right.”