(CNN) – When Sherri Papini claimed she was abducted in Northern California, investigators were led to believe they were looking for two Hispanic women who spoke Spanish, played Mariachi music and fed her mostly tortillas and rice.
Papini’s elaborate story of his 2016 abduction, which federal prosecutors say was now false, has reinforced a number of racist stereotypes and anti-Latino rhetoric that has fueled racial division across the United States these years, according to lawyers and academics.
“She fell into stereotypes about the Latino community that are far too prevalent in the general population, but clearly she also relied on law enforcement that leans on stereotypes,” said Thomas Saenz, president. and General Counsel of Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF)a Latin American civil rights group.
Nearly six years after she went missing in Shasta County, the 39-year-old mother of two has been charged with making false statements to a federal law enforcement officer and mail fraud, justice department noted. If convicted, she faces up to 25 years in prison. Papini, who was arrested last week, was released on bail and ordered to receive psychiatric treatment by a federal judge on Tuesday.
CNN has repeatedly reached out to Michael Borges, an attorney for Papini, for comment.
In a 55-page affidavit filed last week in federal court, prosecutors detailed what Papini told authorities after his discovery. She told police she was abducted and branded by two Hispanic women who kept her chained up in a closet. Papini mentioned hearing them talk about a buyer and being paid for the removal, the document says.
While Papini provided few details about her alleged captors, saying they wore masks and she couldn’t understand them as they spoke mostly Spanish, the way she described their appearance and demeanor signaled a biased view of Latinas, said Stephanie L. Canizaleslecturer in sociology at University of California at Merced.
She told police one of them was wearing “those big hoop earrings” and had thin, “almost drawn-in” eyebrows, according to the affidavit. A sketch based on Papini’s statements and released by the FBI showed one of the women wearing a bandana over her face.
Canizales, who has studied the causes and consequences of racism against Latinossaid Papini’s description of the alleged kidnappers aligned with Mexican women’s tropes in which hoop earrings and bandanas are tied to the cholo/chola subculture and proximity to gang culture.
The political climate at the time of the alleged fake kidnapping cannot be ignored, said Saenz, president and general counsel of MALDEF. Anti-Latino sentiment had grown, and Papini’s story probably fueled it.
In 2015 and 2016, former President Donald Trump focused part of his campaign on making offensive remarks about Mexican immigrants, calling them criminals. For Saenz, this behavior ultimately gave “license” to those listening to Trump to “openly indulge in racial stereotyping not only about Mexican immigrants, but other Latino immigrants and the Latino population more broadly, regardless of nationality”.
The search for Papini and his claims to police in 2016 came at a financial and mental cost in a county with a growing Hispanic community, Shasta County Sheriff Michael Johnson said.
In total, the cost of the investigation to public safety agencies was estimated at $150,000, Johnson said in a statement on Facebook last week. The case also diverted resources from real cases with real victims.
“Not only has this charade robbed valuable resources of real criminal investigative cases,” the sheriff said, “but at a time when there are serious cases of human trafficking with legitimate victims, Sherri Papini has used this tragic societal phenomenon to gain notoriety and financial gain.”
In one 2020 report, anti-trafficking organization Polaris said thousands of women and girls from Mexico, Central America and Latin American communities are victims of sex and labor trafficking across the country. In California, advocates and lawmakers have said human trafficking is “creeping”, “ubiquitous” and many victims are black and Hispanic women.
Bill Garcia, a private investigator who volunteered to help track down Papini in 2016, said Shasta County is on Intestate 5, which is known to be a traffic corridor between Mexico and Canada. . This made me believe that Papini could be a possible target for trafficking like other women in the region.
“Not only has this charade robbed valuable resources of real criminal investigative cases,” Johnson said, “but at a time when there are serious cases of human trafficking with legitimate victims, Sherri Papini used this tragic social phenomenon to gain notoriety and financial gain”.
‘Racialization of crime’ played a role, researcher says
Some people have drawn comparisons between Papini’s case and the behavior other white women have exhibited in past controversial interactions with people of color.
In 2020, Amy Cooper, a white woman, called police about a black man while he was birdwatching in New York’s Central Park. The incident, which was partially filmed and posted on Facebook by the man, Christian Cooper (no relation), was widely shared as another example of white people calling the police on black people for mundane things. In the recording, he is mostly silent, as she frantically tells the police that he is threatening her and her dog.
Amy Cooper was charged with falsely reporting an incident to police, but the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office dropped the charge last year after she attended fairness education and therapy classes racial.
“She wasn’t threatened, but she had internalized very well that ‘if a black man talks to me, I’m threatened and when I tell the police that a black man is threatening me, they’ll believe me,'” Canizales mentioned. In the Sherri Papini case, she was talking about the same kind of racialization of crime.”
When Papini described her alleged captors as Mexican women, she had the same confidence “that no one would question her because the public accepted that this is what a criminal looks like,” Canizales said.
Advocates and scholars said the idea that Latinos are seen as part of a migration crisis or as criminals has not stopped or gone away.
“It’s a big concern that we’re in 2022 and we’re not dealing with less, but in many ways more overt statements of racial bias against the Latino community,” Saenz said.
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