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Meet America's 'toughest sheriff'

By Alfonso Daniels
BBC Mundo, Maricopa County, Arizona

Men in striped uniforms and pink underwear lie in packed bunk beds under the scorching sun.

The sheriff ignores them. This is, after all, his territory: a "Tent City" jail in Arizona created for illegal immigrants and opened in February, where inmates are forced to live outdoors.

Joe Arpaio, 76, describes himself as "America's toughest sheriff". He is the head of police of Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, one of the largest cities in the United States.

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Sheriff Joe Arpaio gives Alfonso Daniels a tour of his Tent City

Sheriff Arpaio also has a starring role in Smile… You're Under Arrest!, a Fox Channel reality show which sets up elaborate sting operations to catch people wanted on outstanding warrants.

He champions a tough law and order stance against crime and illegal immigration.

His message strikes a nerve in this state bordering Mexico - he was recently re-elected sheriff for a fifth consecutive term, with 55% of the vote.

'Nothing to do'

His Tent City has provoked controversy. Critics accuse Sheriff Arpaio of abusing illegal immigrants detained for violating Arizona's state laws, including one enacted in 2005 which deems it a crime to smuggle oneself across the border.

They consider him the worst example of excesses committed by the US immigration detention system. The authorities lock up some half a million people every year, more than half of whom end up in county jails run by local sheriffs.

Some 350 illegal immigrants, mostly from Latin America, are being held in Tent City to serve their sentences before being deported.

They are separated by a wall from another 1,700 regular US convicts detained in nearby tents set up by the sheriff 16 years ago around the main prison building.

Inmates run round Tent City
Inmates race around bottles in the ground to keep active

"This is hell. Food is disgusting, mostly rotten, not even my dogs at home would eat this, we feel humiliated, I need to support my kids and don't know what to do," says a Mexican detainee in his 30s. He admits, though, that prisons in Mexico are worse.

He was arrested for possession of marijuana and will probably end up being deported to Mexico after serving his term, despite claiming to have been living in the US since he was a teenager and having American children.

"It's freezing at night, there are mice everywhere, we have nothing to do here, no religion, no activities, nothing," adds another man from Guatemala.

"Three days ago they even put that up," he says pointing to a fence surrounding a small rectangular field along the prison wall.

As he spoke, a roar arose from the other end of the camp where prisoners cheered as two inmates circled around plastic bottles stuck in the ground and then raced to a nearby fence.

"This is the only activity we do all day, it's horrible," an inmate says.

Autograph

Despite these hardships, Sheriff Arpaio seems to have won over some inmates over time, by creating a more relaxed atmosphere in the camp.

At the end of his visit, he even signed some autographs in postcards provided by the jail, featuring him next to a pink fluorescent Vacancy sign and the words "If you don't want to do the time… don't do the crime", taken when the sheriff first opened this prison.

"When he dies this will be valuable!" one inmate shouted to others in Spanish.

Sheriff Arpaio's policies have provoked strong reactions in Maricopa County.

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America divided: Two views of Sheriff Arpaio's tactics at a recent demonstration in Phoenix, Arizona.

The criticism of Sheriff Arpaio go beyond the conditions at Tent City.

The US Attorney General has opened an investigation against him in response to four members of the US Congress who complained that his deputies allegedly used skin colour as the basis to search for illegal immigrants.

Sheriff Arpaio is also accused of intimidating opponents, including a local reporter who was reportedly surrounded by several deputies while attempting to examine public records relating to the sheriff.

"He even arrested me! He has people cowed," says Dan Pochoda, director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Arizona, who admits that most people still support the sheriff.

The presence of police officers is credited with improving security in some run-down areas around Phoenix like the city of El Mirage.

But critics argue that crime has risen as a result of Sheriff Arpaio's focus on tackling illegal immigration.

FBI figures for 2006 and 2007 indicate an overall drop in crime rates in Arizona of around 2%, while in Sheriff Arpaio's Maricopa County crime rates increased by a fifth over the same period.

Sheriff Arpaio vehemently denies the accusations against him and says his critics are using him as a "poster boy" to repeal anti-illegal immigration legislation and force Congress to approve an amnesty.

"The majority of people like what I'm doing, that's why I get re-elected. I serve the people, I don't work for any Congressman, bureaucrat, or government! I'm an elected sheriff so nothing's going to change."



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