Features

May/ June 2013 Over the Line

Why are U.S. Border Patrol agents shooting into Mexico and killing innocent civilians?

By John Carlos Frey


On the southern bank: Ernestina Santillan stands on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, where her son, Juan Pablo, was shot and killed by U.S. Border Patrol agents last July. (John Carlos Frey)

Until moments before U.S. Border Patrol agents shot him dead on the night of October 10, 2012, Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez had passed a pleasant evening in his hometown of Nogales, Mexico. He had visited his girlfriend, Luz, and watched television with her family; at around eleven o’clock, he asked Luz if she wanted to join him in his nightly routine of grabbing a hot dog at the convenience store where his brother worked. When she declined, he set out alone on the five-minute walk down International Avenue.

At about the same time, right across the border, a Nogales, Arizona, police officer named Quinardo Garcia responded to a call about “suspicious subjects” running south toward the fourteen-foot wall that divides the two towns. At 11:19 p.m., Border Patrol agents, including K-9 Officer John Zuniga, arrived as backup.

“I passed Officer Garcia’s patrol vehicle and I saw two male subjects climbing the international fence and were trying to get over to the country of Mexico,” Zuniga wrote in his report. “I gave them numerous commands to climb down.… I then decided to deploy my assigned canine, Tesko, and hold him on a leash and secure the area in case the male subjects climbed down. Moments later, additional Border Patrol Agents arrived on the scene.”

The two Mexican men were carrying large backpacks, according to the police report. Garcia and Zuniga stated that they presumed the packs contained illegal narcotics and that the two men were trying to evade capture. “I then heard several rocks start hitting the ground and I looked up and I could see the rocks flying through the air,” Zuniga’s account continues. “As I tried to get cover between a brick wall and small dirt hill, I heard an agent say, ‘Hey your canine’s been hit! Your canine’s been hit!’ ”

Border Patrol agents responded by opening fire across the border into the dark streets of Nogales, Mexico. No agents or officers claimed they’d been struck by rocks—the dog was the only one hit. By the time the agents were done firing, Jose Antonio had received two bullets to the back of the head; at least six more bullets entered the back of his body after he fell to the ground.

He landed facedown on the sidewalk, and died there, outside a small clinic whose sign read “Emergencias Medicas.” He was unarmed, according to the Nogales, Mexico, police report. Border Patrol officials, as of this writing, have declined to comment, citing an ongoing investigation by the FBI, which has also declined to comment.

Fatal shootings by Border Patrol agents were once a rarity. Only a handful were recorded before 2009. Even more rare were incidents of Border Patrol agents shooting Mexicans on their own side of the border. A former Clinton administration official who worked on border security issues in the 1990s says he can’t recall a single cross-border shooting during his tenure. “Agents would go out of their way not to harm anyone and certainly not shoot across the border,” he says. But a joint investigation by the Washington Monthly and the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute has found that over the past five years U.S. border agents have shot across the border at least ten times, killing a total of six Mexicans on Mexican soil.

There is no doubt that Border Patrol agents face a difficult job. Between 2007 and 2012, twenty agents have died in the line of duty; most of these deaths were the result of accidents, but four were due to border violence. For instance, in 2010 Agent Brian A. Terry was struck down near Rio Rico, Arizona, in the Border Patrol’s Nogales area of operation, by AK-47 fire after he and his team encountered five suspected drug runners. In 2012, Agent Nicholas J. Ivie was shot by friendly fire after being mistaken by other agents for an armed smuggler.

But following a rapid increase in the number of Border Patrol agents between 2006 and 2009, a disturbing pattern of excessive use of force has emerged. When I first began to notice this spate of cross-border shootings, I assumed that at least some victims were drug traffickers or human smugglers trying to elude capture. But background checks revealed that only one had a criminal record. As I began to dig more deeply, it turned out that most of the victims weren’t even migrants, but simply residents of Mexican border towns like Jose Antonio, who either did something that looked suspicious to an agent or were nearby when border agents fired at someone else.

In one case, agents killed a thirty-year-old father of four while he was collecting firewood along the banks of the Rio Grande. In another, a fifteen-year-old was shot while watching a Border Patrol agent apprehend a migrant. In yet another, agents shot a thirty-six-year-old man while he was having a picnic to celebrate his daughters’ birthdays.

As the debate over immigration reform heats up on Capitol Hill, increased border security will likely be the condition of any path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented workers now living in the United States. This makes scrutinizing the professionalism of the Border Patrol all the more urgent. The picture that emerges from this investigation is of an agency operating with thousands of poorly trained rookies and failing to provide the kind of transparency, accountability, and clear rules of engagement that Americans routinely expect of law enforcement agencies.

So far, the Border Patrol’s cross-border shootings have yet to attract much international attention. If they continue, however, it is easy to imagine the U.S. not only being assailed by human rights activists around the world, but also compromising its standing to pressure other countries, such as Israel, to refrain from firing on unarmed citizens across their borders.

In 2006, the Bush administration began rapidly increasing the size of the Border Patrol, ushering in a fanatic recruitment drive. Customs and Border Protection spent millions on slick television ads that ran during Dallas Cowboy football games and print ads that appeared in programs at the NBA All-Star Game and the NCAA playoffs. CBP even sponsored a NASCAR race car for the 2007 season.

In less than three years, the agency hired 8,000 new agents, making Customs and Border Protection one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the United States. Because qualified recruits were so hard to find, the Border Patrol had to lower its standards, deferring background checks and relaxing training regimens. Lie detector tests, which were previously common practice, were often omitted.

John Carlos Frey is an investigative reporter and documentary filmmaker focusing on the Latino/a community and the U.S.-Mexico border. He won the 2012 Scripps Howard Award for his recent PBS series on the U.S. Border Patrol.

Comments

  • John A. Randolph on May 06, 2013 4:01 PM:

    Thank you to John Carlos Frey for bringing attention to these alarming shootings.

    As a retired US Border Patrol/INS/ICE agent, I am of course not surprised that this happens. Yet the increased frequency of these shootings is very alarming.

    My work experience has shaped my perception of border issues. I have always been disillusioned about our country's approach to illegal immigration and the realities of the border insanity that are young agents must face.

    I had questions as a young agent that I still do now: Why do we chase people around at night like animals when many of those same people are the very people US farmers pay to harvest our food? What causes these people to leave their homes and risk sneaking into our country? Why does our government fail to give us (The US Border Patrol) the required or necessary resources to stop the problem? Are there some type of underlying reasons that our country does not want us to effectively stop it?

    My understanding today: the bi-national elite (US/Mexico) profit off of illegal immigrants and pass the costs and consequences on to the US taxpayers. Those elite have created and institutionalized corporations who not only profit from illegal immigration, but profit from the ineffective enforcement of illegal immigration too.

    Back to border shootings. Border Patrol agents have to shut off common sense , rational thinking and human feelings in order to do their jobs. They know that the vast majority of the people who they catch are honest, hard-working people trying to make better lives for themselves and their families. If these agents can feel at all, they have to feel extreme frustration when one country pushes its poor here, and our country allows those people to be pushed here.

    My disillusion with the above system increased ten-fold once I saw not only a young undocumented kid die, but I saw one of my friends get murdered doing our work.

    Back to border shootings. Ultimately the responsibility lies with the agents who break the rules. What also must be taken into consideration are the conditions created by an entire system of bi-national greed that requires the dehumanization of not only the agents who perform its duties, but the undocumented who are the targets of that system too.

    As with our US soldiers, who can say if the conditions which our government creates and puts our young agents in does not profoundly increase the probability that these young agents might snap?

  • paul on May 07, 2013 9:13 AM:

    Long ago, I watched an interview with a (former) east german border guard who had been involved in shooting at people trying to escape that country.

    One of the things he was very clear on was that it was drilled into all the guards that they only fired parallel to the border, never toward it.

    When you're doing a worse job on the basic human right not to be murdered than East Germany, you've got a problem.

  • smartalek on May 07, 2013 9:46 AM:

    Mr Randolph, thank you both for your service to our country, and for your trenchant analysis here.
    Neither one of them can have been easy for you to perform.
    I wonder if it's occurred to the powers-that-be to put the newbie officers -- especially any that they might have reason to suspect could turn out to be "bad seeds" (and I'd bet a lot that most of the problem-children had been identifiable as such long before any actual incidents) -- on the northern border for a few years' worth of seasoning before deploying them in a territory where preconceived and possibly racist attitudes can have fatal consequences?

  • Dan C. Winters on May 07, 2013 12:03 PM:

    The Border Patrol is part of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It is time to melt the ICE by exposing their near unaccountability to civilian due process. They are out of control and can be better described as the

    ILLEGAL CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE (ICE)

  • John A. Randolph on May 07, 2013 12:41 PM:

    To smartalek: I appreciate your thoughtful remarks!

    It is customary (and not necessarily logical) for the USBP to send all new agents to the Southern Border. The Northern Border assignments were considered primo spots for agents who had some time and grade in.

    Thank you again.

  • Sandy MacDonald on May 07, 2013 8:15 PM:

    Unbelievable! Do they think they're in Gaza?

  • Akash on May 07, 2013 10:19 PM:

    Thank you john randolph

  • California Eagle on May 08, 2013 1:59 AM:

    @Dan C. Winters, you got it all wrong. The Border Patrol is not part of ICE, they are part of Customs & Border Protection.

  • John A. Randolph on May 08, 2013 12:11 PM:

    @ California Eagle - both are under DHS - kind of splitting hairs no?

  • JD on May 09, 2013 9:06 PM:

    Mr. Dan Winters should be aware that the Border Patrol is not a part of ICE. It is part of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), as are the Port-of-Entry personnel.
    The third agency that is under the CBP management is the Air and Marine Branch. All are under DHS.

    The Border Patrol has been dumbed down in regards to the initial training. It was for a period of 16-18 weeks, and the standards have been lowered to a bare ten weeks of training. The upper management of the Patrol reassured the patrol Stations that the quality of the Agents would remain high. HAH! To much has been done to diminish the overall quality of standards and training. CBP needs to reinvent the wheel and set those standards and training to the highly acceptable level it once was.

  • ron on May 09, 2013 9:08 PM:

    Yes, ICE is the Federal Agency that patrols and enforces Custom and Immigration Laws inside our Country. The Border Patrol only enforce our Border's.
    However, the Border Patrol can and does arrest illegal immigrant's in our country if they're arrested by other Police Agencies, who notify the Border Patrol to pick them up. It could be this protocol has changed over the years and ICE will control all of the internal
    national control of immigrants, witnessed by recent events in immigration arrests and confinement. ICE is even worse than the Border Patrol in my opinion. They have no scruples when it comes to treating people with decency or kindness. Those hog's are worse than pig's, and should be eliminated by a new Fed. Agency. Too bad that will never happen.

  • Etaoin on May 09, 2013 10:37 PM:

    Why are they shooting at people returning to Mexico? Why are they shooting at people in a sovereign country?

  • jb on May 13, 2013 10:58 AM:

    There is something I don't understand here. Jose Rodriguez was hit eight times??? That's hard to believe, unless the agents were deliberately shooting at him at close range. It's hard to hit people from any distance. Police officers who get into firefights with criminals, even at close range, regularly miss their target 10 or 20 times for every hit. I simply don't understand how it is possible to inadvertently hit someone eight times.

  • West Cosgrove on May 15, 2013 5:01 PM:

    I live in Nogales, Az. Josť Antonio was hit eight times. When the lawyer for his family finally was allowed a copy of the autopsy report, he read that some of the bullets had a trajectory of LOWER TO UPPER. The only way this would be possible is that Josť was already on the ground, face down, and the agent(s) continued to fire bullets into him. I was at the site where he fell and died last week with his mother. Two things struck me, the Border Patrol agents would have been protected by the wall so that rocks would have been thrown up and over the wall. And that it would take a major league baseball player to get a rock over that wall. And as I stood next the cross that now marks the spot where Josť Antonio died, I realized that there are NO ROCKS in the area. None, I could not find a single rock in the area.