May 16, 2011
The Ballad of Alvaro Luna Hernandez
By MAX B. KANTAR
“I will never surrender my pride and dignity nor allow the system to ‘cut my tongue’ and I will always, without fear, speak out against these war crimes and crimes against humanity, no matter if I spend the rest of my life in a prison cage, and draw my last breath of air laying down in this steel bed surrounded by razor-wire fences and cages, and its prison policies that are designed to destroy one’s humanity….”
—Alvaro Luna Hernandez, October 18, 2010, Hughes Unit Prison, Gatesville, Texas.
Locked in solitary confinement in a tiny cage inside one of the most notorious control units in the Texas state prison system, Alvaro Luna Hernandez is immersed in a stack of old law texts, his eyes glancing back and forth between court transcripts and a thick legal book every few moments. The streaks of gray in his full, and otherwise dark, beard betray his age in spite of his healthy, powerful frame as he reaches towards the ledge of the sink for a lone Styrofoam cup to take a sip of the stale, lukewarm commissary-bought coffee he drinks every morning, when he can afford it.
Just fifteen months shy of 60 years old, Alvaro has a remarkable amount of energy and routinely gets more work done before noon than most attorneys do in an entire day. Today he’s putting together the documents to get a new trial on a writ of habeas corpus proceeding for another prisoner who is both indigent and illiterate and feels he has been wrongly imprisoned. After that, it’s on to the cases of two other inmates Alvaro is helping out who are each facing several decades behind bars if their appeals fall through before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in Austin. Other prisoners know to go to Alvaro for legal help; he has a well-known reputation throughout the state—indeed nationwide, as highlighted in the recent book Jailhouse Lawyers (City Lights: 2009) by Mumia Abu-Jamal—as a tenacious and effective “jailhouse lawyer” who has filed and won no small number of civil rights suits over the past four decades.
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Alvaro Luna Hernandez is a political prisoner of the State of Texas and the U.S. government. He is nearly 15 years into a 50 year prison sentence for an “aggravated assault” conviction stemming from a July 1996 incident in which he disarmed a Brewster County Sheriff attempting to shoot him. Alvaro vehemently denies the charge that he assaulted the Sheriff. To Mexican-Americans in the cities, slums, plains, deserts, and prison cages of the Southwest, he is a civil rights hero, a Chicano freedom fighter true to his barrio roots and eternally fearless in the face of injustice. For years, he has been internationally recognized by amnesty movements and human rights lawyers and experts as a U.S. political prisoner, yet inside the United States, the name Alvaro Luna Hernandez remains largely elusive on the lips of progressives and social justice advocates.
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A high-school dropout with no formal education, Alvaro hasn’t always been such a capable, and indeed, brilliant, litigator. It was during the late 1970s that he transformed himself from a rebellious, zoot suit-wearing “pachuco” hustler in his youth into a prominent leader in the struggle for racial justice and human rights in the Southwest United States. While serving hard time for a crime he didn’t commit, Alvaro educated himself about Chicano history, the prison system, and revolutionary political theory. He founded and headed up prisoners’ study groups designed to rehabilitate and politicize other inmates.
With Alvaro in the lead, a powerful prison reform movement swept across Texas’ criminal justice system and through the state’s federal courthouses in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Alvaro diligently studied the law and used his newly found skills to file an impressive array of constitutional and civil rights lawsuits against Texas police, judges, and prison officials. He and other prisoners utilized hunger strikes, work stoppages, yard takeovers, and federal civil rights lawsuits in a concerted effort to compel the brutal Texas prison machine to respect the human rights of its exploding prison population, made up almost entirely of poor men of color. Along with a handful of other prisoner-plaintiffs, Alvaro won a landmark federal civil rights lawsuit against the Texas Department of Corrections (TDC) after a trial that lasted 159 days in 1978 and ’79 (Ruiz v. Estelle). The court ruled, in a scathing denunciation of the widespread abuse of inmates by the prison system, that the practices of the TDC constituted “cruel and unusual punishment,” and ordered a number of substantial reforms.
“Unfortunately,” Alvaro says, “most of these ‘reforms’ were merely cosmetic….Despite these ‘prisoner victories’ in reforming the system, the federal-nation-state will only go so far because in Texas, the super profits of the state policy of mass incarceration has replaced oil, cotton, and cattle [as the biggest industry in the state].”
Alvaro’s principled work to rehabilitate prisoners and enforce human rights standards in Texas prisons earned him the disdain and contempt of prison officials who locked him in administrative segregation, forcing Alvaro to spend almost the entire decade of the 1980s in solitary confinement as part of a campaign of repression aimed at political prisoners and jailhouse lawyers who threatened to expose abuses in U.S. prisons—including torture, killings, and beatings at the hands, or directions, of prison guards and administrators—and unite inmates under a banner of revolutionary change.
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In March 1991, one year after he was moved out of solitary and back into the general prison population, Alvaro was freed from prison, having served over 15 years, after an investigative journalist for the Houston Post, Paul Harasim, uncovered a gross pattern of systematic prosecutorial misconduct and abuse (which included paying off the lead witness and suppressing physical evidence) in the murder case in which Alvaro was wrongfully convicted, narrowly escaping the electric chair. Certainly no bleeding heart liberal, Harasim nonetheless told readers that “What I learned about the prosecutorial behavior in the trial of Alvaro Hernandez in West Texas made my stomach turn….I wonder if I can support state sanctioned executions any longer.”
Settling in Houston with his wife following his release, Alvaro wasted no time throwing himself into community organizing and political activism. He founded, and became National Executive Director of, the National Movement of La Raza, a civil and human rights group dedicated to empowering Mexican-Americans and struggling for social justice. Alvaro also helped organize and form committees to support the families of prisoners and bring about “truces” between Chicano street gangs in Pasadena, Texas following a number of tragic shootings. Spearheading the campaign to stop the execution of Mexican national, Ricardo Aldape Guerra, Alvaro founded and headed up Guerra’s defense committee. Following years of tireless campaigning and legal battles, his frame-up conviction for killing a Houston cop in 1982 was overturned and Guerra was freed from Texas’ Death Row in 1997.
Alvaro’s impassioned and successful activism in the Houston area earned him international recognition. In the spring of 1993, serving as a delegate for an NGO, Alvaro addressed the United Nations General Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland, criticizing the U.S. government for its record of human rights abuses of political prisoners and Mexicans in the Southwest. Alvaro’s delegation was headed by Rigoberta Menchu of Guatemala who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her courageous human rights activism during the U.S.-backed genocide against Mayan peasants in Guatemala during the 1980s. Upon returning from Europe, Alvaro was invited to speak on national television in connection with the Ricardo Aldape Guerra defense case and began hosting Houston-area radio talk shows to spread a message of racial equality and Chicano empowerment. In the following years, Alvaro worked to inspire and educate young people across the United States, speaking not only at universities and conferences, but also at elementary and high schools, lecturing on an array of social and political issues ranging from human rights and grassroots activism, to American history, the criminal justice system, and the death penalty.
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Following his divorce in August 1995, Alvaro moved back to his hometown of Alpine, Texas, located just 80 miles from the Mexican border. In spite of the fact that Alvaro had virtually zero interactions or confrontations with police in the five and a half years that he lived in Houston, almost immediately the local police forces in Alpine were all over him—arbitrary searches day and night, K-9 drug dogs, and frequent “traffic violation” vehicle stops resulting in no citations.
The police hatred of Alvaro in West Texas, especially in Alpine, is fierce, both personal and political, and decades old. Alvaro has always refused to submit to police authority and abuse; sort of like a rebellious slave in the spirit of Fredrick Douglas, but more like a modern-day Gregorio Cortez. When he was 17 he smashed up some police squad cars as well as the personal vehicle of a racist Sheriff following a police confrontation, a stunt which landed him three years in prison. Years later, in 1976 following an escape from county jail—at which he was awaiting transfer to state prison for the wrongful murder conviction—and subsequent shootout with law enforcement, Alvaro was taken to a windowless “conference room” in the jail where he was beaten within an inch of his life by several on-duty police officers. The cops took turns beating and stomping their handcuffed captive, causing him to lose consciousness, his face, eyes, and lips swollen and bloodied beyond recognition, his scalp ripped open with blood pouring from his head onto the cold concrete floor. Once the police were finished, they dragged a bloodied and unconscious Alvaro across the jail and threw him in a cell, leaving him for dead. The near fatal beating meted out to Alvaro resulted in federal criminal civil rights indictments of Pecos County Chief Deputy Sheriff Mike Hill and Deputy Sheriff Bill Mabe, culminating in misdemeanor convictions and probation for the officers. For his part, Alvaro was awarded substantial monetary compensation for damages following a civil suit. The convictions of the officers, however mild, ultimately destroyed their careers as policemen, thus earning Alvaro a special animosity in local law enforcement circles for daring to fight back against police on their own terms, both in the streets and in the courts.
Alvaro’s persistent defiance against oppression has always stemmed from a deep-rooted thirst for the freedom so cruelly denied to him and millions of other Chicanos in the Southwest United States since the colonization and annexation of the Mexican territories north of the Rio Grande following what is commonly known as the U.S.-Mexico War (1846-1848). In a very real sense, the rural West Texas community of Alpine is like a microcosm of race-relations in the region. Like all of Alpine’s Chicano residents, Alvaro grew up on the south side of the Southern Pacific railroad tracks which served as the de facto racial dividing line between Mexican-Americans and whites. Much like the Jim Crow South at the time, the parallel social universe of rural West Texas manifested harsh economic and political means of control to ensure the subordinate position of Mexicans in an Anglo-dominated society. The town’s Mexican population was largely impoverished, locked into a near-permanent state of economic subservience to white business interests while the gross disparity in social services and infrastructure served as a very visible reminder of the prevailing racial hierarchy, not only in Alpine, but in the American Southwest in general.
The Alpine police and the Brewster County Sheriff’s office were, of course, all white and patrolled the Chicano barrio south of the tracks daily and nightly with a brutality usually reserved only for the town’s “meskins.”
“People were scared of them,” Alvaro writes in a letter from his prison cell, recalling how as a young boy he would go looking for his father or grandfather in the local bars, the Sheriff would often barge in, gun on his hip, to intimidate, arrest, and humiliate Chicano men and elders simply as a means of letting them know “who was boss.”
Whether at the pool hall or walking the streets, Chicano youth were routinely singled out for arbitrary beatings and harassment by the cops. Alvaro was a tough kid, a self-proclaimed “vato loco” and product of the “pachuco” subculture. He was often getting into trouble for drinking beer or fighting, and had many violent confrontations with police as a teenager. Once at a high school football game some policemen were trying to arrest another Mexican kid and started beating the young man; Alvaro intervened to stop the assault and the cops turned their attention, and rage, to him, beating and pistol whipping young Alvaro as a hostile crowd gathered around, throwing garbage at the officers. The police busted open his skull, requiring several stitches, but not before taking him to jail, charging Alvaro with “assault on a peace officer.” Alvaro’s run-ins with the police landed him, at the age of 15, in a juvenile prison run by the Texas Youth Council (TYC) for a year. The juvenile detention centers in Texas had reputations for being extremely brutal and abusive—so much so that the Texas Youth Council was ultimately shut down by federal courts in 1983 following over a decade of lawsuits.
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Just months after getting released from the custody of the TYC, something happened that would change Alvaro’s life forever. It was June 12, 1968. Alvaro was hanging out with his best friend, Ervay Ramos. The two buddies were cruising around Alpine in Ervay’s brother’s car when red police lights started flashing in the rear view mirror. Ervay was, like Alvaro, 16 years old, but didn’t have a valid driver’s license. He sped off and the police car gave chase. Fishtailing through a back alley with the wail of the siren growing louder in the distance, Ervay quickly stopped and told Alvaro to jump out of the car. He drove off and struck a nearby fence next to the football practice fields and landed in a ditch. With the cop car getting closer, Ramos jumped out of the car and ran down the alleyway hoping to escape. Alvaro was just feet away and saw with his own eyes what transpired next.
“The police car, driven by Bud Powers, a well-known cop with a reputation in the barrio for being racist and brutal, pulled up and stopped [behind] the Ramos car,” Alvaro vividly recalls. “[Powers] stepped outside, pulled his revolver and shot the fleeing Ramos in the back with his .357 magnum pistol killing him instantly.”
The murder of Ervay Ramos was one of a number of similar killings of Chicano youth by police in the Southwest at the time. Officer Bud Powers received a proverbial slap on the wrist—five years’ probation—and never served a day in jail. The killing of Ervay Ramos was cited by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in their 1970 report to the President entitled “Mexican Americans and the Administration of Justice in the Southwest” as one of several examples of what the Commission referred to as a pattern of “serious police brutality” and “widespread discrimination” suffered by Mexican-Americans at the hands of law enforcement officers and the U.S. judicial system in the Southwest United States.
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So when Alvaro moved back to Alpine in 1995 with political struggle and courtroom justice for his slain childhood friend on his mind, he was met with considerable police opposition. He was working as a freelance paralegal for attorneys throughout the state when Alpine community members began approaching him for help regarding police brutality and other injustices in town. They had seen Alvaro on television when he was in Houston, working against the death penalty and police oppression. They knew about his impressive record of civil rights activism and how he had litigated a number of successful federal and state civil rights lawsuits against Texas police, judges, and prison officials. Moreover, citizens sought out Alvaro for help because, in addition to being a prominent public critic of racial and social inequalities in Alpine, it was well known—both by the general public, as well as by law enforcement—that he was working on re-opening the 1968 Ervay Ramos murder case with the intention of bringing his killer, policeman Bud Powers, into federal court on murder charges.
The response of the Alpine police to all of this was to organize and carry out a sophisticated campaign, in the spirit of the F.B.I.’s “counter intelligence program” (COINTELPRO) of the 1960s and ’70s, of surveillance, harassment, and repression against Alvaro. They hired a local heroin addict, Mary Valencia, to work as a police informant, ransacking his legal files and personal belongings while working as a maid at the motel he was staying at. Police followed him around, subjecting him to unjustified searches and harassment.
Worse yet, the police convinced the father-in-law of an Alpine Police Sergeant—a man who was known around Alpine as a local town drunk—to falsely accuse Alvaro of armed robbery—a ridiculous frame-up charge which Alvaro ultimately ended up getting dismissed in court while acting as his own attorney. In the meantime, however, Alvaro bonded out of jail by selling his car to the bail bondsman, but just weeks later the bondsman “withdrew” from the bond, unbeknownst to Alvaro at the time.
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On July 18, 1996 Sheriff Jack McDaniel showed up on Alvaro’s doorstep looking to re-arrest him. Brewster County’s new sheriff was far from an anonymous cop just “doing his job.” McDaniel had been cited in a victorious civil rights lawsuit filed by Alvaro against then-Sheriff Jim Skinner a few years back. Moreover, it was no secret around town that Alvaro was investigating Sheriff McDaniel for corruption and embezzlement of funds from the county treasury—funds that Alvaro alleged were being used at McDaniel’s private ranch in West Alpine. Coupled with his work on re-opening the Ramos case and his long history of resistance to local police power, Alvaro argues that the prerogative of the cops was clear: “The police all knew what I was up to and they were determined to stop me at all costs.”
When questioned on the legality of the arrest—for which no warrant was presented—an enraged McDaniel pulled his gun on Alvaro. Fearing quite literally for his life, Alvaro disarmed the Sheriff in self-defense before he could shoot, told McDaniel to leave, and then fled the scene. Nobody was injured. For three days Alvaro was able to evade law enforcement in the rugged countryside of Brewster County during the course of what was one of the most massive manhunts in recent West Texas history. Following a shootout with police at his mother’s house, Alvaro was captured and charged with two counts of aggravated assault; one for allegedly pointing the gun at Sheriff McDaniel after disarming him, and another count for allegedly shooting an officer, Curtis Hines, in the hand during the shootout.
At the trial, witnesses testified that Alvaro never pointed the gun at McDaniel. McDaniel accused Alvaro of pointing the gun at his chest—threatening him with a deadly weapon—but Alvaro swears this is a lie. In a live interview on local television on July 18th following the confrontation at Alvaro’s house, McDaniel told viewers that Alvaro had only disarmed him and neither threatened nor shot him.
“Days later,” Alvaro explains, “when the Sheriff met with the District Attorney he changed his story to say that I had not only disarmed him but had pointed the gun at him—the difference between a minor misdemeanor and a first degree felony offense.” The videotape was ultimately kept out of court proceedings; Alvaro’s lawyer Tony Chavez is rumored to have potentially struck a backdoor deal with the prosecution. At the time, Chavez was under investigation himself for drug trafficking and was facing many years in prison under a plethora of forthcoming RICO charges. In fact, just months after Alvaro’s trial, Chavez immediately took a plea bargain and was sent to federal prison for 30 months and disbarred from the practice of law.
Throughout the trial numerous witnesses, including former law enforcement officers, also testified to the intense, longstanding police hatred of Alvaro. Alvaro was found not guilty on the second count of shooting Officer Hines in the hand (it was determined that Hines was hit by a ricocheting police bullet). Despite considerable public protest, however, the nearly-all-white jury found Alvaro guilty of “aggravated assault” for allegedly pointing the gun at McDaniel’s chest—an accusation which Alvaro vociferously and consistently denies to this day.
Alvaro Luna Hernandez was sentenced to 50 years in state prison in the summer of 1997. He will not be officially “eligible” for parole until 2021.
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Though his appeals have all been exhausted, options still remain within the legal system to bring about Alvaro’s release. The KOSA TV videotape interview with McDaniel may still exist, and a full review of federal, state, and local files pertaining to Alvaro, and his ex-lawyer Chavez, is likely to shed light on Alvaro’s conviction and political imprisonment. Obtaining the pro bono assistance of one or more bright legal minds to help pursue other existing, and very promising, legal avenues to reenter the courts continues to be a top priority and a potential source of hope.
There is one thing, however, that remains clear and undisputed: absent a substantial popular mobilization and grassroots campaign pushing for his freedom, Alvaro faces a virtual life sentence of incarceration in the brutal control units of Texas’ state prisons. Yet in the meantime, although buried deep beneath the razor-wire fences, uncounted tons of cold steel, and the rows of soul-destroying concrete cages of Hughes Unit Prison, Alvaro Luna Hernandez remains among America’s most fearless political prisoners, incessantly struggling for freedom, locked up but never defeated.
Max Kantar is a Michigan-based independent writer and the Midwest representative for the Committee to Free Alvaro Luna Hernandez. For more information on Alvaro’s case, visit www.freealvaro.net. Max can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.