Mayor Margo facing criticism for ‘Gestapo-like tactics’ remark during work session

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EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — Mayor Dee Margo is facing criticism after making an anti-Semitic statement at a City Council work session.

On Tuesday, Margo accused District 1 Rep. Peter Svarzbein of seeking “Gestapo-like tactics” to enforce public health measures amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Let’s just be clear about it,” Svarzbein told KTSM 9 News, “these comparisons in a public health emergency — of Nazis, Gestapo, of genocide — to describe local and state responses — government responses — to keeping people safe is extremely offensive.”

The Geheime Staatspolizei, or Gestapo, was the secret police unit of Nazi Germany that persecuted Jews and anyone critical of the Nazi regime during World War II. The Gestapo had a central role in carrying out Hitler’s “The Final Solution” designed to annihilate Jewish culture through mass murder. 

Svarzbein is Jewish and has family who survived the Holocaust. Cecilia Camp, Svarzbein’s grandmother, was one of two siblings out of 10 to survive the Holocaust.

More than 10 million people were killed during the Holocaust.

The insult came after Svarzbein offered an amendment — that failed — to the Special City Council item to extend the disaster declaration in response to the COVID-19 surge that included limiting restaurants to take-out and delivery only.

The Borderland continues to make headlines as one of the new epicenters of COVID-19 across the country. El Paso’s COVID-19 situation continues to worsen while city and county leaders scramble to implement effective measures in the community.

Last week, El Paso Margo announced that he did not believe a shutdown of the city was appropriate despite a 300-percent increase in cases over the last three weeks that included about 10,000 new cases over the last 14 days.

Svarzbein’s proposed amendment was intended to reduce community spread. 

“This is at a time when hospital rates are soaring beyond a point where we should feel comfortable for our safety, Fort Bliss has banned its personnel from eating inside restaurants on or off base, the Mayor of Juarez is hospitalized with COVID-19 and has requested to the president of Mexico the need to shut the border off to El Paso, and the governor has sent over 900 nurses to help us as well as convert our Convention Center to a field hospital,” said Svarzbein. “We need to do what we can to maximize our community’s ability to absorb the impact at our hospitals and keep our community safe. We must push our Governor to allow our local government to do more for the safety of El Pasoans.”

Margo apologized to Svarzbein on Wednesday morning via email:

“Peter I apologize for the use of the term ‘Gestapo’ in the course of discussion last night. Inappropriate semantic use. Should have found other words to describe that I will not allow dictatorial legislative tactics to shut down EP.”

Svarzbein says the accusation of “Gestapo-like tactics” was, at the very least, a hyperbolic and socially ignorant statement connecting a contemporary attempt to mitigate a public health crisis to Nazi-era extermination officers.

The Anti-Defamation League concurs.

“One can disagree with policies around the COVID-19 pandemic without bringing up sensational analogies to the Nazis or the Holocaust. Such analogies are both false and inappropriate and only serve to diminish the real history of World War II. We hope that Mayor Margo reconsiders his words here,” Mark Toubin, Southwest Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League, told KTSM. 

According the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence, “The very mention of the word ‘Gestapo’ brings immediately to the minds of most people nightmarish images of sadistic butchers working for a criminal organization that prided itself on its ability to expertly and enthusiastically engage in genocide within Germany and occupied Europe before and during World War II.”

Margo’s statement on Tuesday is not the first time a mayor of El Paso has been linked to anti-Semitism. 

In 1916, Mayor Tom Lea Sr. implemented disinfection policies of Mexican migrants crossing over to the United States that were later used as blueprints for gas chambers at concentration camps like Auschwitz.

“Hundreds of people came to El Paso a day to work and they were forced to take what were called baths in very heavy chemicals including DDT and in the 1920s, Zyklon B — which was used by the Nazis in the extermination camps,” said Yolanda Leyva, Chicana Historian and Associate Professor at the University of Texas at El Paso.

In 1917, 127,173 Mexicans were sprayed at the Santa Fe International Bridge as part of Lea’s policies.

According to author David Dorado Romo, Gerhard Peters, a Nazi scientist, wrote an article in 1938 in a German scientific journal that featured pictures of El Paso’s delousing chambers. Peters’ later role in the Holocaust was as managing director of the division that oversaw the supply of Zyklon B to gas chambers at death camps. 

More recently, the Borderland has seen the effects of racism and the violence that comes from hateful language.

“We have seen what happens with racist, xenophobic, and hateful rhetoric,” said Svarzbein. “The kind of actions that have occurred in our community on Aug. 3rd.”

A snippet of Margo’s remark during the work session is below:

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