Photo posted on Flickr by Caleb Alvarado.

Tensions between the indigenous population and authorities in Phoenix reached boiling point on Saturday when thousands of demonstrators marched through the city to demonstrate their aversion to County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, best known for his severe anti-immigration and prison policies. Welcome to Maricopa, where chain gangs still exist and inmates are forced to wear pink underwear.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio calls himself "America's Toughest Sheriff". His prison inmates are banned from smoking and reading magazines, and made to partake in chain gang labour, with black and white striped uniforms to boot. In response to prison overcrowding, he opened what is known as "Tent City" for surplus inmates.

Inmates joined by chain work as litter-pickers. Video posted by Flickr user Alice J. Robison Oct. 25, 2009.

He has been re-elected sheriff four times since he first took office in 1993. The number of inmates in that time has doubled to 10,000

"These PINK UNDERWEARand PINK HANDCUFFS are the very same ones worn by the 10,000 inmates in Sheriff Joe's jails.  Now you can wear them too". Photos and text posted on the Sheriff's website.

In 2008 federal courts found Arpaio guilty of constitutional violations after he reduced the number of inmate meals to two a day. In October 2009 the Department of Homeland Security removed Arpaio's right to use the authority of the federal 287 (g) programme, which allows local authorities like his to take on the role (usually carried out by the Homeland Security) of identifying, detaining and processing for removal "criminal aliens" who are a threat to public safety. Arpaio was accused of abusing the programme by targeting immigrants who had committed minor offences such as traffic violations.

Marching against Arpaio

Images posted on Flickr by ONE/MILLION / Willie Stark Jan. 18, 2010

The protest in Phoenix on Saturday (Jan. 16, 2010) is not the first of its kind. Local residents, particularly those of Hispanic or indigenous origin, have staged dozens of peaceful demonstrations in the past 16 years. This one received particular attention because of the clashes that broke out between mounted police officers and protestors. The police say they fired tear gas after being attacked; the protestors say the action was unprovoked.

Video posted by "dorkatron" Jan. 16, 2010.

Five were detained by the police on the day. Image posted by Twitter user Javier Soto Jan. 16, 2010.

“It’s no secret that Arpaio targets ‘Mexican looking people’”

Tupac Enrique Acosta is an indigenous activist from Phoenix and founding member of the local community based organization Tonatierra. He took part in the protest on Saturday.

Arpaio's' approach to illegal immigration is a form of state terrorism that places the community as a whole under siege, militarizing the general society with discriminatory ‘law enforcement sweeps' that target the most vulnerable - the undocumented workers and their families. These sweeps comprise of roadblocks that are set up in areas where there is a high number of people of Mexican descent. Mainly vehicles, but also pedestrians, are stopped and searched, and if they don't have the papers deemed necessary by the sheriff's forces, they are then arrested. [Thirteen sweeps have taken place since March 2008, resulting in the arrest of 669 people]. They are unannounced, which is why a local indigenous rights campaigner [Lynda Guzman], has set up a simple text message system by which to alert around a thousands local people as soon as it becomes known that one is taking place.

It's no secret that Arpaio targets ‘Mexican looking people'. He was quoted saying so himself. Now I look Mexican, but am a US citizen, so how does he distinguish between me and someone who came over a month or a year ago?

The removal of the authority of the federal 287 (g) programme has shifted the focus of the operations by the sheriff's office, but the practice continues due to the fact that the 287 (g) authority is still in effect at the county jail [under federal law]. Result: the sweeps are used as instruments to bring detainees into custody, and then the 287(g) authority is implemented.

An end to this will not come with the removal of Arpaio as sheriff, although it will be a step. What is going on in Arizona has the same dynamics of apartheid after the colonisation of South Africa. We indigenous people have nationality here that precedes the treaty of 1848 [which ended the US-Mexico war in seeing the US take ownership of almost half of Mexico's territory in exchange for $15 million in compensation for war damages]. We are not illegal immigrants in our own home continent of Abya Yala [central America]."