(Photo © German Villasenor)
On the advice of his immigration lawyer, Kelly O’Reilly, junior middleweight contender Alfredo Angulo entered the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Service Processing Center January 18, 2012 in the hopes of finally ending his near two year visa nightmare. Located at 1115 North Imperial Avenue in El Centro, CA 92243, and run by Field Office Director Johnny N. Williams the facility houses potential immigrants for a variety of reasons. What was supposed to be a three-day stay while Angulo was processed and bonded, free to enter the US and resume his boxing career while awaiting a court hearing date has become seven months and counting of incarceration and frustration.
Someday soon, Alfredo Angulo will have his say in an immigration court. His legal team of Michael Miller and Mr. O’Reilly feel they have a very good case. Sources at the facility informed me that the feeling regarding Angulo is that he has a very strong case. However, Angulo’s legal team has not cleared me to say why Angulo entered the facility as well as key details of his case. From what I have been told and shown, his current incarceration has nothing to do with what some claim is past immigration issues. He is not currently incarcerated because he was captured crossing the border as some have suggested. He is not facing criminal charges. Angulo, according to his legal team and himself, voluntarily entered the El Centro processing center with the full belief he was coming right out and into his new life three days later.
Five months after that, I arrived near dusk. The arid desert climate that surrounds the ICE Service processing Center (SPC) at least had a mild breeze. The SPC parking lot had a smattering a high end cars with one exceptional motorcycle; A custom job from the looks of it. There is a main office where you check in. It has a front desk with friendly Mexican-American guards, two males and two females, who were an even mix of smiles and business. It should be noted they were not ICE personnel but rather employees of Asset Security Services. I was told during the day is when the ICE officers work. A Labcorp medical kit hung on the far wall and a Homeland Security flag was more visible than an American one. While I visited I didn’t see an ICE administrator or officer. Attempts to speak to Johnny N. Williams or anyone with the authority to address Angulo’s situation in any way were met with so much red tape, I eventually gave up.
Ahead to the right of the desk, a guard stood at a podium and was the last checkpoint before the metal detector ahead (no phones, cameras, one pen and a notebook allowed). To the right down the hallway are the meeting rooms that are more shared cells. In room #5 where I met with Angulo, there are two seats on each side of glass with a white circle each side speaks into.
“If I knew you were in here I would have come sooner,” I said to him.
“No one knew I was here,” he said which is actually not true seeing as how his former promoter Gary Shaw mentioned to me March 10 via email that INS had picked him up. At the time, Angulo’s legal team denied that he was in custody. I’m still not quite sure how Mr. Shaw knew he was inside as that information appears to be somewhat confidential.
The last time I saw Alfredo Angulo in person was August 20, 2011 after his Mexicali fight with Joseph Gomez. It was a first round destruction that saw the return of Mexicali’s favorite son to the sport he had been seemingly exiled from. He took out Gomez in a little over a minute with a brutal body shot. The crowd went wild for their native son in the heat of the Mexicali night. For one night only, the decrepit soccer stadium was a coliseum filled with adoring fans who chanted “El Perro!” the conquering king’s name, as he was taken from the ring and paraded ringside before his people. Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Boxing promotions had recently bought out Angulo’s contract with Gary Shaw and the future appeared bright.
Afterwards, we met up at the hotel and spoke briefly. He spoke of his love for Mexico and his hometown of Mexicali.
“People are afraid to come here,” in his soft voice that belies his tough guy exterior. “They think because its Mexico that it is dangerous. It’s not true. People are good here. They work hard. I love it here. Its good.”
A year later, he did not resemble the man I took a photo with before leaving. His hair was long. Not quite shoulder length but long enough he kept combing it back over his ears. It was slightly parted and swept back high on his head. A beard now covered his face neatly down to a point. He kind of looked like Che Guevera mixed with a young Wolfman Jack.
In a blue shirt and jeans, Angulo was brought in with a guard through a security door and then down towards the cell where we would meet. The last time a man was at his side guiding his arm, it was a ref about to declare him the victor. Now this.
We spoke for three hours roughly and covered a wide range of topics. Again, out of respect for his request, we will keep this story to one particular thread: Why Angulo believes he is still incarcerated.
Following his loss to James Kirkland, Angulo continued running a local Mexicali gym in an effort to help kids develop discipline and a skill that can possibly take them out of poverty. It is something he is very passionate about.
“I have always liked to help people, not only here, in this place,” Angulo told Damon Bingham of Nomad Entertainment, whose video interview accompanies this article. “It’s my responsibility to help, especially kids who grew up on the streets like me. Whenever kids come up to me … or at the gyms, I first tell them, although I only have primary education, that school is most important. After they finish school, they can spend all the time they want at the gym . Why? Because this way, they will be a successful fighter! They will fight well and also know how much they should earn as a fighter. It’s why most boxers get their money robbed from them, because they do not know contracts or how much they should be earning from a fight.”
Alfredo Angulo had been involved in the visa process for a year. He trusts that the system will play itself out in his favor. That the process was taking so long is not why he entered the ICE Service Processing Center on the advice of his lawyer.
“I came here January 18,” he said. “My immigration lawyer told me this is how you do this. I am following everything according to the laws.”
Again, I have been asked not to say what his upcoming court hearing is about or why he entered the ICE SPC. But what I can say is that he was supposed to be in there just three days while his bond was worked out. However, there has continually been a problem, according to Angulo, personified in SPC Director Johnny N. Williams. Mr. Williams has final veto power over the estimated 450 detainees at the facility.
While visiting hours shift throughout the week, Angulo’s routine is the same.
“5 AM wake up for breakfast. Lunch is at 11. Dinner is at 4. There’s two hours of yard recreation,” explained Angulo of his routine. “5 AM they count you. 1:30 again. 9:30 again. 12:30 AM again. One day, I was pissed. They took a guy to the infirmary but they forgot. It was chaos. We had to get up from lunch. It was chaos until they figured out he was in the hospital.”
A man who is normally something of a loner who enjoys silence and solitude, Angulo shares a barracks with other detainees.
“In the barracks, there are strict rules and schedules you must live by,” he explained to Bingham. “There are 32 barracks, 2 shower rooms, bathrooms, 2 TV rooms, 6 game tables, a telephone area, a small field. It’s ridiculous that drinking fountains are right in front of the bathrooms that you share. There are no divisions, you see everyone going to the bathroom. How are you going to want to get a drink of water while someone is pissing in front of you?”
He told me that pure heaven was when he was waiting to be interviewed by Damon Bingham.
“They put me in a room all by myself,” said Angulo with a smile. He spoke as if he was a man dying of thirst hit with a sudden rainstorm. “All I could hear was the sound of my own heart and me breathing. It was heaven.”
The inmates have to buy toiletries for themselves. Tiny soaps and shampoo bottles go for $2 a pop. If you want to use the telephone to call home, it costs you money. In essence, this facility felt to me and certainly to the man who could not leave it less like a service processing center and more like a Mexican internment camp.
“They say this is a detention center, but I see it as a prison,” said Angulo. “There is no difference.”
Angulo spends his recreation time running or playing handball in order to stay in shape. Not wanting to draw further attention to himself, he does no boxing training at all inside. However, the shoes he was given initially, no more than China flats, quickly burnt through the sole in the desert heat. So Angulo requested a pair of real running shoes. His team would bring him some if allowed. But Director Williams declined the request for two months.
“The director here, he declared he would not let me out with a bond or not. The guards were saying he’d like to make an example of me. He said I am no better or worse. He will to it see that I remain here,” explained Angulo.
However, the ever resourceful and always hopeful Angulo has a plan. The Puma sneakers he was finally allowed to wear are beginning to wear a bit so he is putting in an early request. As for getting out, his legal team are working on a hearing soon.
The day Angulo arrived he was greeted warmly by the guards. People took photos with him. According to Angulo, Williams declared that this new celebrity detainee would receive no special treatment. Instead, what he has gotten is exactly that.
“[Williams] contradicts himself. It’s funny,” said Angulo. “Everything including legit requests he vetoes. I asked for tennis shoes. He made me wait two months. Every request he denies personally. He won’t treat me special yet he goes out of his way to deny me things.”
While the “special” treatment might seem harsh, Angulo is not the only one receiving less than stellar treatment at the facility.
“One guy asked 3 times for the doctor. They asked him to put in a request. Four hours later he collapsed. He went to the hospital. He was sick and they told him to write a request,” explained Angulo, adding wryly “Lucky for me, I don’t get sick easily. It makes me mad that you put in your request and then three days later they see you. Even if you ask they won’t take you unless you are sick or dying.”
Angulo tried to get dental care and found yet another harsh reality of being stuck in a detention center.
“I am used to going to the dentist every six months. I put in a request and they said ‘Don’t bother. You can’t see a dentist until you have been here a year,” said Angulo who just smiled and shrugged.
Angulo’s request for a bond was denied by Williams. And further intervention by his promoter De La Hoya, who visited the facility earlier this year, was met with silence. When De La Hoya requested to meet Williams during his impromptu visit, Williams, according to one source, declined to come down to the office to meet with the ex-fighter. Without comment from Williams or ICE, it’s hard to explain the motive here.
So Angulo shrugs, smiles and moves forward as best he can, adapting to a system he trusted but is instead being failed by. His ray of hope is his upcoming hearing. Director Williams continues to veto requests and prove his dominance over a man powerless to do anything but petition and request and wait for his day in court. Inside, Angulo gives counsel to different detainees who ask, offering his opinion of their legal situation or helping in any way he can. He does his best to be a positive influence to everyone he meets. The sport he left behind to embark on acquiring his freedom still lingers in his mind, however.
Near the end of our talk as I asked him if he missed the sport and would he return, he told me wasn’t quite ready to begin boxing training. He wanted to first finish this business. His current reality requires all his focus. But then he stood up as I spoke with the guard who informed me it was time to go. When I turned after the guard disappeared to give us privacy to say goodbye, Angulo was standing back and sideways to me.
He let loose a long flurry of punches, fast enough to blur as his fists stretched out in front of him in combination.
“You still got it,” I smiled.
And with that we put our fists to the window to say goodbye and parted ways.
“It took me awhile to understand why God has brought me to this place where I am now, ICE at El Centro. To see all the injustice, and how so many are taken advantage of, it gives me sadness,” said Angulo. “The first 2 weeks here, I kept asking: Why am I here? Why do they do this to me? One day, I sat on my bed and realized it’s to show people the kind of place this is. It’s a wasteland; I don’t know how else you may call it.”
As I walked to the car in the evening heat, a lot of emotions hit me. But above it all, I was touched by how in three hours Angulo was not bitter. He did not blame anyone. He just accepted that this was his lot and that he would have to fight his way through it. And what’s more, inside a wasteland, he has found a purpose.