The trial of an American rancher accused of killing a migrant begins

Migrants on the Mexican side of the border wait to cross into the United States at a site near El Paso, Texas on March 19, 2024 – Copyright AFP HERIKA MARTINEZ

The trial of a rancher accused of killing a Mexican migrant on his Arizona property began Friday as tensions rise in the United States over the influx of migrants across the southern border.

George Alan Kelly, 75, is charged with second-degree murder in the January 2023 death of Mexican Gabriel Cuen-Buitime, 48, on his property in the border city of Nogales.

During opening arguments Friday in a southern Arizona courtroom, the rancher’s defense attorneys said Kelly was eating lunch that day when he saw a group of men walking across his property with backpacks and rifles. When he heard the shot, he reached for his AK-47 to fire into the air to scare them.

“He knew he and his wife were in danger,” said attorney Brenna Larkin.

“He raises the rifle at an angle high so he knows he’s not going to hit anyone. And he shoots. They will shoot until the threat is gone,” Larkin said.

But prosecutors said the migrants were unarmed and portrayed the incident as a product of Kelly’s bias against migrants routinely held in regions near the Mexican border.

“They weren’t coming near him. They posed no threat to him. They went parallel to his residence,” said Chief Deputy District Attorney Kim Hunley.

“I want you to think of Gabriel Cuen-Butimea as a human being and not an animal as George Kelly described him,” Hunley added, referring to the rancher’s statement on the case.

The prosecutor said that during the trial, the evidence and testimony will show that Kelly “is guilty as charged.”

The trial begins amid rising tensions in the United States over an increase in the movement of migrants across the border with Mexico.

Authorities recorded 2.4 million encounters with migrants at various locations along its 3,145-kilometer (1,954-mile) border, a statistical record.

The crisis has spread beyond the borders of states like Arizona or Texas, and Republican governors are sending thousands of migrants to Democratic-led states like New York or Illinois, where officials say they are overwhelmed and are demanding more help from President Joe Biden.

The issue is likely to play a role in November’s presidential election, in which Republican Donald Trump is seeking to return to the presidency with promises of massive deportation operations and tough immigration policies.

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