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Family stages peyote protest
Navajo Times
January 25, 1997

By Mark Engler

Kearny, Ariz. - Religious freedom activist Leo Mercado and his family got into the spirit of Martin Luther King Day Monday, staging a picket protest in Kearny, Ariz. to call attention to what they say is yet another violation of their constitutional rights by local law enforcement authorities here.

The Mercados are currently involved in litigation against the Kearny Police Department and several local government agencies. In October 1995 police raided on the Mercado home and seized 1,000 of the family's live peyote plants. Prosecutors later returned the peyote in exchange for Mercado and his wife pleading guilty to one count each of possessing drug paraphernalia. Both received suspended sentences and probation.

The Mercados are claiming in the suit against the government entities that their civil rights were violated during the raid. But the Mercados' protest on Monday was in response to nothing having to do with the current civil case, but a reaction instead to an unrelated run-in with authorities which occurred last week.

Leo Mercado was stopped Saturday night for speeding and detained on an outstanding warrant for failing to pay a $500 state child support bill. He was later released after posting the money. However, during the booking process police discovered a small medicine bag containing peyote in Mercado's pocket. They subsequently seized Mercado's bag and the dried peyote button inside. They did not file any charges against him relating to the peyote.

Mercado and his wife, Raven, neither of whom is American Indian, shook rattles and burned ceremonial white sage as they picketed in front of the Kearny Police Department on Monday morning. "I have this crazy dream that we should have local police officers who will actually protect people, not harass them with K-9 units (police dogs) for having a cracked windshield," Leo Mercado shouted to a crowd of about 30 locals gathered in front of Old Time Pizza just across from the police and fire station along Kearny's small business strip.

"I've had it," he continued. "We don't need a bunch of goons jumping all over people for no particular reason in our town. I'm either going to straighten up this town or move to Mexico where the people don't claim to be free." Clad in traditional Huichol Indian garb, Mercado made his statements as he paced back and forth carrying a homemade sign reading "I Have A Dream" with a large green peyote button painted on it.

The Huichol Indians, who live in central Mexico near the Pacific coast, make annual pilgrimages each year across the Sierra Madre Mountain range into the Chiuahan Desert and their holy land, or "Wirikuta"as they call it. There the small, spineless hallucinogenic peyote cacti grow wild and in great abundance. Mercado has embarked upon several pilgrimages with the Huichol, and has been recognized and accepted for his efforts.

Protest onlookers stood watching with curiosity as Mercado spoke, some shouting "Go Leo!" and "That's right!" "The police in this town look at it like they're good and whoever gets in their way is evil," said Dennis Medlock, a local mine worker who watched the protest said afterward. "Whatever they do to put you down, regardless of whether or not it is legal, is OK in their eyes. It's time people started saying something."

Local resident James Kay walked across the street and joined in helping the Mercados pick up trash around the police station. He said later he believes protests like the Mercados' should be more common. "I've lived here for a long time," he said. "What it comes down to here is that the police are bored and have nothing to do. Kearny doesn't really have a violent crime problem. We have more police than we need, and a lot of the ones we have aren't from around here. They don't understand and don't know the people."

Kearny Police Detective Ed Morgan said the decision to seize Mercados peyote was not made by local police. Rather, a county prosecuting attorney instructed them to do so by phone shortly after Mercado was picked up, he said. Kearny Police refused to meet with Mercado on the street to discuss the peyote seizure and other issues relating to police conduct in the community.

"This is a free country, he has a right to picket," Morgan told the Navajo Times. But Morgan suggested that Mercado and other community members file complaints against the police department if they wish to see some kind of official action. The Mercados are outspoken proponents for full legal protection of religious peyote use. They say that the peyote plant is a divine gift from the Creator and should be legally available for anyone who feels a spiritual connection to it. The Mercados have also established an organization called The Peyote Foundation, run from their home, which is aimed at educating people about the plant and its history.

"As a foundation, we will provide information about the peyote cactus and its religions, develop conservation programs for the species and provide inspiration to those who choose the peyote road," a Peyote Foundation information sheet states.