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