Nov. 27 2002 12:00 AM

Young Tijuana marksmen battles Mexican politics, racism and accusations of cheating

Would you be angry if you were a world-class athlete more or less ignored in your country of birth, and then accused of cheating in international competition in another?

The calm and controlled mien required to be a champion marksman does not allow 18-year-old Agustin Sanchez Jr. to reveal much more than a tad of frustration while describing his achievements and disappointments in the world of target shooting. Not a sport that has the numbers or passion of the major athletics, but nevertheless one that draws a solid band of devoted participants.

“I like shooting,” says Sanchez, at the house in a middle-class neighborhood in Tijuana where he lives with his parents and three younger sisters. “I don't like a lot of exercise, physical activity. I was on a football [soccer] team, but I didn't like it. Football, baseball, basketball, I don't much like them. Also, there's a lot of people who participate in those sports, but in shooting there's not as many. It's special. But you have to practice. And I practice a lot. I don't smoke or take liquor, and from God I've been given a good eye and good co-ordination.”

He mentions a Mexican boy of 14 or 15 who also took the target-shooting world by storm some five years ago, then went off to party life at college and lost interest.

His father, Agustin Sr., is originally from Jalisco, in Mexico's interior. As a boy he would tote an antique rifle through the hills, hunting deer for food. The senior Sanchez passed on to his son a fondness for shooting, and they both belong to a hunting and shooting club in Tijuana.

Agustin Jr. has been using an air rifle-legal and unregulated in Mexico-since he was around 10 years old, shooting at soda cans in the front yard of his house. When a bit older he started with a .22-caliber rifle at the gun club. Other members began to offer tips when it became obvious the boy had ability. He also read American shooting magazines and watched instructional videotapes. “But learning to shoot well is like learning a language,” he says, in passable English. “You can listen and watch, but to really learn you have to go out an do it.”

‘Like a free man'

At 13 he entered his first competition in Tijuana, and at 14 won his first match. Practicing several hours a day after school, in the yard or at the gun club, and mostly with the air rifle because of the high cost of powder ammunition, he began to rack up an impressive number of wins all over Mexico. Last year he won the Mexican national small bore (.22 rifle) competition with 40 of 40 hits, a perfect-and quite rare-score.

About three years ago he began competing in U.S events. In August of this year he won the U.S. small bore championship in New Mexico, and in October, in Tucson, took the international high-power rifle match. His home overflows with trophies and other awards.

The branch of the shooting sports in which he participates is known as silhouette shooting. The targets are metallic depictions of chickens, pigs, turkeys and rams, at distances of 40 to 100 meters, and much longer for the high-power rifles. This type of shooting competition originated in Mexico in the first half of the last century, and today is followed in all three North American countries, as well as in France, Australia and few others. Probably because it isn't universal, it's not yet an Olympic sport. Shooting at paper bull's-eye targets is an Olympic event, and both Sanchez and the shooters who know him believe he could be successful in that, with some training. Air rifle is another Olympic sport in which he is sure he could win a medal, as he practices for all his competitions with that gun.

“When I'm competing, I feel like a free man,” he says. “If I have any tension in my body, I feel it release with the cartridge. It's fun. But it takes control. With a high-power rifle there's a golpe [blow, recoil] and you can feel the adrenaline rush. But with a .22 or an air rifle, you can't move. It's pressure. But my God helps me. I pray to God during all my competitions.”

Sanchez and his family belong to a Evangelical Christian church in Tijuana, one of the Protestant denominations that in recent years have made inroads into the country's traditional Roman Catholicism, especially among the middle class. “God helps me a lot. He gives to me things that, alone, I wouldn't make it. And even when I lose a match, I don't feel like a loser. If I've put all my concentration and effort into it, I feel good in my mind.”

It might seem that the sports establishment in Mexico would be eager to support this young marksman in his endeavors. But that has not been the case. Sanchez thinks one reason is that gun ownership south of the line is illegal for anyone under 19, and that support from a shooting federation would be almost a sanction for minors to possess firearms. (The guns he uses in Mexico are owned by his father.)

“Many people in Mexico think that guns are bad,” he says. “But I'm a sportsman-I only use the guns for my sport. Or I may also use them for self-defense, say if someone breaks into my house and threatens my family. But then I would only shoot to wound him. I'm a Christian, I won't kill him.” He pauses, then adds, “That sniper in the U.S. had a problem in his mind. He maybe thought he had power because he had a gun. But a gun doesn't give you power, that comes only from God.”

Playing favorites

Agustin's mother, Lucy, believes there are more potent reasons her son doesn't get the support and acknowledgment he deserves, motives rooted in Mexican society and history. “There are in these things, sports and other thing, a centralization of power.” Decisions regarding who receives support for athletics, she says, are concentrated in the power centers in Mexico's interior. “For someone like Agustin,” she states, “there are what we call piedras en el camino, stones in the way.” Some Mexican athletes, she admits, do receive financial assistance, “but from tobacco and liquor companies, and we don't want that.”

The needs, she says, are for travel expenses, ammunition for practice, and perhaps clinics such as one in Colorado, which teaches shooters how to excel in Olympic paper-target competitions. She and her husband own two pharmacies in Tijuana (there was a third, but they recently closed it because it was losing too much money), in the downtown tourist area. Five years ago, she says, the family could have themselves financed Agustin's competition needs, but business has plunged since 9/11, and large chains moving into the area sell the drugs cheaper than she can buy them wholesale.

“The two stores we have left we keep open mostly for the benefit of the employees,” she says. But the family is considering selling them and moving to San Diego.

Agustin has dual citizenship; his mother was born in California and earlier this year got him his papers. But he is as annoyed as his mother over the way things have worked in the land of his birth. He notes that when he won the Mexican national championship, it took him a year to receive a certificate so stating. “They didn't even call me to say, ‘Hey, congratulations-you're the winner.'” He is certain it would have been different were he from a wealthy or politically connected family.

“The people in the Mexican Olympic Committee are all in Mexico City and Guadalajara, and they don't always send information to local clubs about when the different competitions will take place that you need to win to qualify for the Pan American Games or the Olympics. And if you do go, and win, like me, they won't call. They don't want to be bothered with the expense. If they have a friend, even if he doesn't shoot well, they may say, ‘Well, you're my friend. You can go.'”

He contrasts this to the U.S., where recently he competed in a national match as part of the California team and was given $250 by the California Rifle and Pistol Association to offset travel expenses. He thinks Mexico is changing a bit in these regards lately, but probably too little and too late to help him. “And even if I found a private person to support me, if the Mexican Olympic Committee didn't want me to go, I wouldn't be able to go,” he explains

Sanchez says he is considering joining the United States Army, whose marksmanship units supply many of the Olympic competitors. And friends in the U.S. are also looking into the possibility of a scholarship for him, at one of the universities, mostly in the Rocky Mountains, that offer such in shooting sports.

“I want to go to the Olympic games,” he says. “If someone in Mexico will support me, I'll practice a lot. But it takes money, and if I don't get support in Mexico but do in the U.S., I'll shoot for the U.S.” For the first time during the interview a flash of anger creases his face. “I will go anywhere. Anywhere. Cuba. If Cuba supported me, I'll go and shoot for Cuba.”

Accusations fly

A Tijuana newspaper that wrote a story about Sanchez omitted his comment about Cuba, and it could rankle some Americans, but it may derive from an unpleasant experience he had in the U.S., when competing for the small bore national championship in Raton, New Mexico, in August. After that event had concluded, with Sanchez the match winner (he competes in the masters category, the sport's highest), a rumor took hold and spread that he had broken the rules-cheated-by placing a block of wood inside the pocket of his shooting jacket, or vest, so as to give to give his arm that holds the rifle better support. (All silhouette shooting is done from a standing position.)

“I didn't cheat. I had no stick under the sweater. The judge asked me to open [the sweater] and there was nothing. I think those accusations were made because I won the match, and because I'm young and I'm Mexican. They may have thought, ‘Hey, he came here and beat us,' and they don't like that. So they told that lie.”

A protest against Sanchez was filed by a Canadian competitor, but it came too late to count, and the National Rifle Association, which sanctions state and national competitions and sets the rules, disallowed it. “Nothing was won by cheating,” says an upset Lucy Sanchez. “He wouldn't want a trophy won by cheating.”

Agustin notes that the two most vociferous disseminators of the cheating story were apparent spokespersons for the British company that makes his favorite silhouette ammunition. (In any case, their photos and names-William Zander and Teresa Everheart-appear in company catalogs.) “This company should consider supporting my son,” says Sra. Sanchez, and proudly adds that Agustin has “won in the United States with someone else's rifle.”

For some reason that even the family does not understand, they have had difficulty getting the papers to cross the senior Sanchez' guns to the U.S. when Agustin competes there, even though other Mexican shooters do so with no trouble. So when he comes north for a match he borrows a custom-made rifle from Modesto Castellon, a green-card holder who lives in Chula Vista and owns a small construction company there. He has been a sport shooter for a quarter century, and when he lived in Mexico was for years the president of one of the hunting and shooting clubs. He competes as an AAA-rated shooter, one step below the master category.

Of Sanchez he says, “I got to know him. A really nice kid, very respectful. And every time I was shooting next to him, he was beating my ass. On a scale of 1 to 10, I give him a 10. He's got everything to be a good shooter. I took him to a match with high-power rifles, and he beat everyone. He used one of my high-power guns. And he never practiced [with a high-power rifle]. He can practice with an air rifle, and then win with any gun that's put in his hands.”

The young man from Tijuana, says Castellon, is the best shooter he's seen come out of Mexico. “The best of the best.”

‘This kid is unreal'

Castellon agrees that Agustin has received inadequate support in Mexico. On one occasion, he recalls, he saw Lucy Sanchez selling tickets to raffle off a rifle, to be able to send the boy to a shooting clinic in Mexico City. “I don't know why [Sanchez can't get support]. We pay dues [to the gun clubs] in Baja, and they should support a shooter like this to go anywhere he wants to go. To the [gun club] members in Baja, I don't think it would cost even a dollar apiece to send a guy to the Olympics.”

One reason for the lukewarm support, he thinks, is that many gun club members favor the shotgun, and have little interest in silhouette rifle shooting. Still, he says, “I don't think the members are taking a kid like this seriously. It's sad. Yet the club he belongs to, they all have money. The kid should be flying from one place to another, at the club's expense. This kid could bring medals to Mexico from all over the world.”

Another supporter of Sanchez is Tony Tello of Riverside, who has spent decades in shooting and has been an official of several firearms and shooting organizations. He has won national silhouette shooting matches in the U.S. and Canada, but “I never won a big prize in Mexico. The competition there is tough, and there's more pressure.” (Tello was born in Mexico but came to the U.S. as a child.)

He says silhouette shooting is different and more difficult than standard kinds of marksmanship with paper targets, and that even national champions with stellar reputations in those other areas often encounter difficulty hitting the metal targets. He is therefore impressed with Agustin Sanchez, but he also understands the fluid nature of his sport.

“I've been shooting for quite some time, and this kid is unreal,” he says. “But you're only as good as your last match.” He feared that the cheating rumors would distract the Tijuanan and cause him to regress, “but as far as I can see he's as good as ever, maybe better.”

Because he too has been accused of cheating by some of the same folks who questioned Sanchez' integrity, he is scornful of the accusations. “There's a group of people who think they're running the game. In any sport there's always a group that separates themselves. They think they're so good and know everything. And when they don't win they have to make up excuses.”

He was at the New Mexico match, and the accusation began when a well-known shooter who “has a lot of credibility said that Agustin was using artificial support. But no one went to a line officer and said, ‘Agustin is doing this or that.' They observed him from a distance and decided that Agustin was doing something illegal. But that's not the way things are done. They have [to protest] through a line officer or a match director.

“They're just not accepting that a 17-year-old kid from Mexico can be that good. No one in California has ever accused him, because he's been beating us for three years. I've defended Agustin, and for that I've also been accused of cheating.”

One of the two individuals who were loudest in their charges against Sanchez told Tello that “as far as he was concerned, we were all a bunch of cheaters-meaning Mexicans.”

Tello also says the other person was making the rounds at the match with the cheating story. Because Tello is a board member of the California Rifle and Pistol Association, and also a member of its silhouette shooting competition committee, he prefers not to name the two adamant accusers.

As to whether any racial or cultural biases may be motivating the charges, “I hate to say it, but yes. Some of these people have been friends for years, but when they saw me supporting Agustin they wouldn't talk to me. You know, in the sport of shooting there are a lot of rednecks. In central California, in the '80s, when I and other Mexicans were shooting in matches there, they were used to seeing only Mexicans who worked in the fields. But every time we went [to the competitions], we beat them. And they would call us names.”

Malicious intent

The Sanchez cheating controversy dominated the discussions in shooters' chat rooms for a while on the Internet. There, a non-Latino and California teammate of Sanchez named Dan Theodore took aim and blasted away at the rumor carriers. He has, like the others, been long active in shooting, as well as other athletic endeavors.

In a recent phone interview, he related that a man name Carl Bernosky, “very respected in the sport with no ax to grind,” had mentioned to a few people that from his observation Sanchez, who had won the match, had cheated. “He offered an opinion. I think he was mistaken and told him so.”

Theodore several times viewed a videotape someone at the competition had made of Sanchez while he was shooting. “I'm an engineer and I know the forces of physics. His pocket was empty. If there was something in the pocket they would be stress marks in the jacket, and the pocket would collapse. That man had not cheated one iota.”

Theodore had made the same points in a chat room shortly after the incident, to which Carl Bernosky replied that as a professional upholsterer he dealt often with leather and still was of the opinion that Sanchez had cheated. He also scorned the idea that good shooters could do as well competing while naked. (Agustin had told some inquirers at the match that he could shoot just as well naked.)

Theodore posted a long rebuttal, telling Bernosky that any complaints should have been made while the match was in progress, and not after the fact. “If you don't have the balls to make the call, keep your mouth shut and don't disparage a man's reputation.” Theodore's relentless defense made some converts, and one poster wrote that the charge of cheating “had a malicious intent to harm the reputation of the kid,” and that legal action might be in order.

At the match, and after Bernosky voiced his opinion, Theodore says that William Zander and Teresa Everheart “took his comment and blew it all out of proportion. They went around screaming that Sanchez was cheating. It's all because he's a Mexican.” He adds that Zander and Everheart wear very bulky jackets at the matches that, while legal, “give them rigidity [in the torso] and shouldn't be allowed. Some people know that [wearing bulky jackets] is cheating, and won't do it. Those two are the most hypocritical people in the sport.” Attempts to contact Everheart in New Mexico were unsuccessful. Zander, reached by phone in Houston, said he had no comment on the matter.

The attire issue seems large in the shooting sports community, and Theodore blames the NRA for not regulating such things more vigorously, and in general operating with a laxness that borders on corruption. “They're allowing the elites to cheat and hammering the small guys. It makes me puke. I want to see the shooting sports fair and equitable.”

He alludes to a case at a national competition, when one in-crowd “elite” shooter was using what Theodore is certain was an illegal rifle, with no protest from the NRA rules enforcers. “If it was a Mexican who did that, they would have tarred and feathered him. They would have gone after the Mexicans, and they started the sport. It's a disgrace. The NRA is a limp dick without the balls to keep the cheaters out, but they permit false accusations against a little guy. I'm ashamed to be a member of the shooting sports with that kind of thing going on.”

Agustin Sanchez may have been dismayed at the time of the incident, but shows no visible after effect. He knows he didn't cheat, he says, so it doesn't matter. He also more or less attributes it to the kind of psyching-out competitors do in countries, “like telling me that if I miss the first shot, I'll lose. But if [the accusers] see me in a competition, they'll be nervous. They'll have the pressure on them, because it's not on me.”

Earlier, Tony Tello had written Sanchez a letter informing that he'd defended him on the Internet.

“I wrote that your secrets are that you train up to three hours a day with an air rifle. But mainly, that you have a big heart, and even bigger balls.”


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