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Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio Loses Reelection

The controversial "America's Toughest Sheriff" lost after more than 20 years in office and new criminal charges.

Last updated on November 8, 2016, at 11:44 p.m. ET

Posted on November 8, 2016, at 11:37 p.m. ET

Ross Franklin / AP

Arizona voters on Tuesday ousted Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who for more than 20 years presided over the state's largest county as the self-styled "toughest sheriff in America."

Arpaio, the former Drug Enforcement Administration special agent, built himself a contentious legacy: Beloved by some for his tough-on-crime and anti-immigrant policies, he is reviled by those who say he abused his power to make life difficult for Latino immigrants.

Ross D. Franklin / AP

Paul Penzone

Maricopa County's new Sheriff, Paul Penzone, is a former Phoenix police sergeant who nearly beat Arpaio in 2012. This time around, Penzone was seen as a more credible challenger to Arpaio. With half of precincts reporting, Penzone had secured 54.87% of the vote to Arpaio's 45.13%.

Arpaio’s loss is a huge win for Latino and immigrant activists in Maricopa County. For years he was effectively a one-man institution in Arizona who had mounted some of the nation’s strongest policies against Latino immigrants.

"It feels bittersweet because we won a very important battle in the county against someone who has terrorized our community and town families apart," Adriana Garcia Maximiliano, a volunteer with Bazta Arpaio, told BuzzFeed News, "but we're also very wary of the presidential election."

Students chanting "arrest Arpaio not the people"

The 84-year-old Arpaio is best known for his infamous Tent City, an encampment for prison inmates who were issued pink underwear. He also conducted workplace raids that targeted businesses employing Latinos in an effort to arrest undocumented immigrants. And since taking office in 1993, he became a conservative darling.

But Arpaio’s decision to have his deputies check the immigration status of people during traffic stops, particularly Latinos, landed him in hot legal water when he was found to be racial profiling Hispanics. That ultimately resulted in contempt of court charges after he refused a federal judge’s order to stop the practice.

A preliminary trial hearing in that matter is scheduled for Dec. 6.

"It has been an honor and a privilege to serve the people as Sheriff of Maricopa County for the last 24 years," Arpaio said in a statement.

Inflatable Arpaio driving with students from Phoenix who walked out to canvass and protest the sheriff.

Arpaio’s legal troubles, which ended up costing taxpayers millions, and his decision to focus on enforcing federal immigration laws, upset some Republicans who distanced themselves from the sheriff.

Immigrant rights groups seized on the tough-on-immigration initiatives to mount a voter registration drive for Latinos, a fast growing population in Arizona, to help tilt the electorate against the five-time incumbent.

"I'm still processing this," Maxima Guerrero, a campaign coordinator with Bazta Arpaio, told BuzzFeed News. "It's been a really long four years. I did a campaign in 2012, and we lost, so to be able to come back four years later and finish what we started is great."

This is what happened to the Arpaio piñata

At an election watch party for Bazta Arpaio, someone grabbed a microphone after Arpaio's defeat was announced and asked, "Se pudo?" Could we do it?

"Si se pudo!" — Spanish for, "Yes, it could be done" — the crowd yelled back.

According to the Pew Research Center, Arizona has seen a fast growth in its Latino electorate with an expected 1.3 million eligible voters in 2016, an increase from 796,000 in 2008. The state has the sixth largest population of Latinos in the US; At about 2.1 million, they make up 3.7% of all Latinos in the country and 31% of Arizona’s population.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.