Sunday morning I was poring over Scott Henson’s blog Grits for Breakfast and his updates on massive drug busts in East Texas when an email arrived from Irma L. Muniz. Occasionally Irma distributes writings from her husband Ramsey, which I gladly post at the Texas Civil Rights Review. For those of us who can remember the 1970s, Ramsey Muniz was part of our folk experience. He ran for Governor on the ticket for the party of La Raza Unida, back when it looked like the 1970s would be the start, not the end, of a glorious multi-ethnic movement for radical social change.
One reader who found the writings of Ramsey Muniz at this site wrote me a while back expressing his own surprise and the surprise of his father that Muniz was in prison. Neither father nor son had been informed of Ramsey’s story, and both were grateful to have a source of news about a man they liked.
So with Henson’s attention to mass arrests at Tulia, Palestine, and Longview still fresh in mind I googled “Ramsey Muniz Governor.” And the first item that shows up is a report from Los Angeles about the nasty business of narco politics. Like it or not, the nexus of narco politics draws together the stories of Ramsey Muniz and the massive drug busts of East Texas. There is a Civil Rights impact to the vicious structure of narco politics almost anywhere you look.
Writing in the summer of 2001 on the occasion of a pending election for mayor of Los Angeles, columnist Hector Carreon produced a despairing analysis of “dirty politicos” most of them Democratic Party office holders who had been publicly exposed for their ties to cocaine use or cocaine profits.
“The drug trade in Los Angeles is a multi-billion per year operation and has, like in Mexico, corrupted law enforcement and politicians,” writes Carreon. To back up his claim that law enforcement in Los Angeles has been “totally corrupted,” Carreon cites the example of one “dirty cop” who in order to plead a lower sentence in his own case started “fingering” a number of other “dirty cops” who were a little too closely tied to the cocaine trade they were supposed to be fighting. Can anyone say Serpico?
The Los Angeles narco scandals of 2001 came to international attention in February of that year when it was revealed that Bill Clinton’s brother-in-law had accepted large sums of money from narco interests just prior to the time that the USA President commuted the prison sentence for the son of a reputed “family boss” in the narco trade.
“This scandal has angered two large blocks of voters in Los Angeles,” wrote Carreon:
The first is the L.A. Black community. The Black community is asking why the thirty Black youths that were imprisoned along with Carlos Vignali were not released as well. In fact, Carlos Vignali was the principal culprit in the crime. He was the one that provided the money necessary for the crack cocaine operation and was one of the main leaders. Why was he released and the others are still languishing in prison? To the Black community, this hypocrisy only shows that Chicano politicians also practice double standards when it comes to racial justice. It is no surprise, that a recent poll showed that almost 80% of Blacks will vote for James Hahn [the white candidate for L.A. mayor, instead of the Chicano candidate, Antonio Villargairosa].
For the time being, let’s set aside the question of whether narco wars are justifiable. Carreon’s analysis of one L.A. scandal raises the same question found in the racial profile of massive drug busts of Tulia, Palestine, and Longview. When narco wars are waged upon civilian populations, are they waged fairly with respect to race?
Henson begins the fairness question when he asks whether it is credible to believe that so many people could possibly qualify as “major dealers” in such small cities as Palestine or Longview. In Palestine authorities are prosecuting 72. In Longview, 73 arrests last week bring the recent total to 141. Says Henson about Longview, “the idea that the town supports a 73 person crack distribtion ring, much less 141, seems highly suspect.”
Add to Henson’s question the fact that all 72 suspects in Palestine were African-American, and a new question takes shape. What is the likelihood that a 64 percent white city would support a crack distribution ring that is all Black? The demographics of the Longview busts are not yet clear. So we will wait to see if there is credible evidence of equal-opportunity narco wars in progress or if like Tulia and Palestine the racial bias of these busts is naked as your face.
But turning back briefly to L.A., Carreon reports that the 2001 narco scandals there not only angered Black voters, but Chicano activists as well, and here is where Ramsey Muniz comes in:
Another segment of angry voters is well informed Raza. Many of us who understand the sad state of contemporary politics, know that these dirty politicos don’t really represent our interests. These very same “politicos” have for years been ignoring the case of Ramiro “Ramsey” Muniz who is in federal prison on cocaine drug charges. Ramsey Muniz was sentenced to a life in prison without the possibility of parole after a questionable prosecution by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Many in our community believe that the prosecution was politically motivated because Ramsey Muniz was an effective and principal leader of the now destroyed La Raza Unida Party of Texas. Ramsey Muniz was a candidate for Governor of Texas under La Raza Unida and challenged the power structure of Texas in the early 1970’s. This was when La Raza Unida Party had taken control of South Texas under the leadership Jose Angel Guttierez. About two years ago, Ramsey Muniz was being tortured at Leavenworth Federal Prison in Kansas through being kept in solitary confinement for over a year. Telephone calls to all these “dirty politicos” were ignored. An emergency call to Congressman Xavier Becerra was never returned. Ramsey Muniz health was rapidly deteriorating for having to sleep on the cold concrete floor and his family was concerned that he might expire. Now we hear that Congressman Becerra was on the phone with Bill Clinton on the day when he signed the release for Carlos Vignali. Does La Raza see something terribly wrong here?
In order to answer Carreon’s potent question, we have to get re-acquainted with Ramsey Muniz. As Diana A. Terry-Azios reported in a Texas Monthly article of Nov. 2002, Ramsey Muniz was “the first Hispanic Texan to appear on a general election ballot.” At the age of 29, his 1972 campaign took 214,000 votes away from the conservative Democrat who won the election anyway.
The roots of Ramsey’s resistance can be traced in many directions, but we begin with a July 4 protest at the Alamo in 1967, the first public action of the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO). According to research by Teresa Palomo Acosta at the Handbook of Texas Online, MAYO began as a West San Antonio movement inspired by the Civil Rights activism of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) which by 1967 had fallen under the leadership of Stokely Carmichael.
Chicano nationalism, Aztec symbolism, and political activism were early themes for these “brown berets.” Like Carmichael, they set out to shake things up, not only against the conservative white establishment, but also against existing civil rights organizations.
In December 1969, MAYO led a successful student boycott of the schools of Crystal City, and in January 1970 the party of La Raza Unida was born at Crystal City’s Campestre Hall. When party leaders went looking for a candidate to run for Governor in 1972, they found a MAYO activist in Waco. Ramsey Muniz had already earned his law degree from Baylor University and was helping to administer the Waco Model Cities Program.
Acosta reports that Muniz in 1972 was not much of an insider to the party of La Raza Unida. At its first national conference in El Paso the party formed a national Congreso de Aztl·n, but Muniz left the conference early to work on his campaign. When Frances “Sissy” Farenthold lost the Democratic primary for Governor to conservative Dolph Briscoe, Muniz and La Raza had hopes that she would throw support to the third party. But despite the white feminists decision to stick with the Democratic ticket, Muniz was able to reduce the Democratic victory to a plurality rather than majority for the first time in history.
Even with these dramatic historical achievements to his credit, the Handbook of Texas online has no entry dedicated to the life of Ramsey Muniz, who today communicates brief messages from Ft. Leavenworth prison. In December 1994, Muniz was sentenced under federal guidelines that mandated life sentences for three felony convictions.
Court records reflect that Ramsey had suffered two previous convictions: “one in the Southern District of Texas involving 1,100 pounds of marijuana and the other in the Western District of Texas involving 822 pounds.” Although Muniz pleaded guilty to both charges at the time, he objects to them both being counted under the three strikes rule: “because Muniz claimed that although the two prior convictions mentioned above arose out of guilty pleas in separate jurisdictions, they involved a single conspiracy.”
For Aztlan activists in Los Angeles, the case of Ramsey Muniz is one good example of the effects that COINTELPRO had upon radical activists of his generation. For Advocates of Justice in Ramsey’s home town of Corpus Christi, the final arrest was a frame up.
On March 11, 1994, Ramsey and a companion were arrested in Lewisville, Texas, for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and “conspiring” to possess cocaine with intent to distribute. According to court documents, federal agents found 40 kilos of 88 percent pure cocaine in the trunk of a car that had been rented by Ramsey’s companion, that was three days overdue, and that had been driven briefly by Ramsey on the morning of the arrest.
Ramsey and his companion had fallen under surveillance when they associated with a third party who was being watched at the time. Court documents describe the third party as “a suspected drug trafficker with whom the DEA was negotiating a drug sale.” He was the one who allegedly said in a restaurant conversation with Ramsey and companion that “the deal will go down.” He allegedly said it in Spanish, a language that only one narc agent within earshot could understand, and he left town shortly before the agents moved in. That third man, say Ramsey’s allies, was never charged.
As for the statement that “the deal will go down”, Ramsey testified in court that the phrase was taken out of context. The comment was actually made in reference to funds being raised for legal services that Ramsey was arranging for the man’s family. Although Muniz had been disbarred, he was working as a legal aide.
Ramsey’s ability to construct an alternative account for his actions was blocked by a trial court ruling that prevented him from calling a motel clerk as a witness. He wanted the clerk to verify that a fourth party had stayed at the hotel. This fourth party, says Ramsey, would have been a more likely accomplice to the now missing third party.
But the courts ruled that while conjectures were perfectly reasonable that Ramsey intended to distribute 40 keys of cocaine, based on his attempt to walk away from federal agents and disclaim his connection to the car they were sniffing out, it would have simply confused the jury to hear Ramsey’s account of person number four, since no reasonable inferences (or reasonable doubts?) could possibly have been drawn. The well-managed jury convicted Ramsey, and the three strikes rule put him in prison for life.
Reading the appeals court decision to uphold the conviction and life sentence of Ramsey Muniz is a chilling experience. As the appeals court would have it, according to strict reading of law, if federal agents come up to you, identify themselves, ask for your identification, and start asking you questions like, ìdo you mind if we frisk you for weapons,î not only are you legally free to just walk away, but you are counted as ignorant if you assume you are being detained for investigation.
Yet in the same document, the three-judge appeals panel names the federal agents and declares in plain English that they “pursued Muniz, intercepting him at the Honda dealership.” So it’s always important to remember that whenever three federal judges in Texas agree that you have been “intercepted” by federal agents, questioned, and frisked, that you have not actually been in the eyes of those same judges “detained.”
The nexus between marco politics and civil rights grows even more interesting when we see the Muniz appeal on a timeline next to the Hopwood decision that abolished affirmative action in Texas until the Supreme Court restored it in 2003. Both appeals were handed down by Fifth District Panels in 1996, Hopwood from the Western District on April 18, Muniz from the Eastern District on April 20. One judge actually sat on both panels. Judge Jacques Wiener in the Hopwood case tried to save affirmative action in Texas, but was outnumbered two to one in the Western District. Two days later in the Eastern District he joined legendary JFK appointee Reynaldo G. Garza and one other judge in upholding the life sentence of Ramsey Muniz.
Ramsey argued to the appeals court that newly imposed guidelines for sentencing were constitutionally unsound. If previous convictions were going to be used against him to produce an “enhanced sentence,” argued the defrocked Baylor grad, then he should be allowed to launch collateral attacks against those convictions. The appeals court replied that if Congress had intended repeat offenders to have rights to collateral attacks against their prior convictions, then Congress would have said so. But Congress only allowed collateral attacks against convictions fewer than five years old. In their support of mandatory sentencing guidelines, Weiner and Garza were implacable.
So here we have a guy who pleaded two guilty charges at a time when there was no “three strikes” rule and when his two guilty pleas were thrown back at him as reasons for a life sentence, he was told that he had no Constitutional grounds to complain. In the long run, Muniz may have been the more discerning legal theorist. Last year the Supreme Court ruled in U.S. vs. Booker that the sentencing guidelines can no longer be considered mandatory.
In the most recent correspondence from prison, one hears the pain of Ramsey’s hope that the Booker ruling may open the legal window that allows him to live free before he dies. Yet today federal prison rules only allow him five hours per month to talk on the telephone. He finds himself forced to choose between speaking to his loved ones or his legal advisors. By March 13 this year, he had spent all his phone time for the month.
Do we find something terribly wrong here? Yes, we do. What we see is the enormous power of state-backed narco warriors to organize suspicions into life crushing consequences. Ramsey Muniz is doing life because he fell into company with a drug trafficker who was negotiating with federal agents. The appeals court states that negotiations were underway. They say it as if it should raise no suspicion at all. Prior to Ramsey’s arrest, it was this one drug trafficker who was overheard by one federal agent talking about a deal going down at ten o’clock. For all we know, the deal that was communicated in that moment was the takedown of Ramsey Muniz.
What we know for sure about Ramsey is that he drove someone else’s car from one motel to another and that when he spotted federal agents he tried to walk away. Once the suspicion is framed in the way that the narco agents frame it, then Ramsey’s actions are cast into a suspicious pattern. He made lots of phone calls. He travelled too much. But what if we are careful to construct Ramsey’s intent from the ground up, based solely on the evidence? What does any of his activity so carefully documented by a federal appeals court prove conclusively about Ramsey’s intent on March 11, 1994?
There is something thin about the appeals court document that summarizes the facts of Ramsey’s case. I want to take out my pen and grade it. How can three federal judges conclude on the basis of the facts they state in the document that Ramsey Muniz was not entrapped, that he was not railroaded, that he was not made subject to the narco war’s ability to drive investigations that that look like obvious civil rights offenses? Why don’t the judges lay out the facts that a plain accusation of conspiracy would require for support? Why don’t they say where the cocaine came from or where they think it was supposed to be going at 10 o’clock on the morning of March 11? Good god, they are sending a man up for life based on a document that wouldn’t impress a teacher of freshman comp.
Something is terribly wrong here because in the deadly narco wars the power to frame suspicion is usurped. We are not permitted to frame suspicion any other way. Why was Ramsey prevented from putting up his defense before the jury? Why was he not allowed to call his witness? Why was he prevented from demonstrating the unfairness of three strikes or the time-honored sanctions against double jeopardy?
Why was Ramsey Muniz intercepted? And why did the appeals court rule that in the moment of his interception he should have known he could walk away. But he was walking away when he was intercepted. In the topsy turvy logic of these federal rationalizations, we suspect with Hector Carreon that the narco trade has corrupted the very structure of judgment in political life. And the pathway of that corruption cuts wide through Texas.
But even a state as large as Texas is but a puzzle piece in the larger racist struggles of the narco wars. Why do we have comedy skits on national television dedicated to white USA Presidents and their cocaine habits while Ramsey Muniz is locked up without mercy in Leavenworth? Why do we have our third story in a row of felony arrest warrants sailing over Black neighborhoods in Texas like Passover curses hissing here comes Pharaoh to separate your sons from their lives? Make no mistake about it. In the nexus between narco politics and civil rights, something terrible is going on.
GREG MOSES is editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review and author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. His chapter on civil rights under Clinton and Bush appears in Dime’s Worth of Difference, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org