Why are U.S. Border Patrol agents shooting into Mexico and killing innocent civilians?
Richard Stana, head of Homeland Security and Justice at the Government Accountability Office, testified before Congress in 2007 that the “rapid addition of new agents” would “reduce the overall experience level of agents assigned to the southwest border”—and that Customs and Border Protection would be relying on “less seasoned agents” to supervise the new recruits. He spoke even more frankly in an interview on National Public Radio: “Any time we’ve had a ramp-up like this in the past, the propensity to get a bad apple or two goes way up. And if we don’t have supervisors to identify those bad apples, then they stay on board.”
At the same time, Customs and Border Protection has been secretive about the guidelines its agents are supposed to follow. While a quick Google search will take you to use-of-force protocols for police departments of such major cities as New York and Los Angeles, use-of-force guidelines and training manuals for the more than 21,000 CBP border agents are difficult to come by. The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees Customs and Border Protection, turned down Freedom of Information requests to see their guidelines.
At least this much is known for sure, however: an international agreement with Mexican law enforcement officials states that U.S. Border Patrol agents are barred from firing their weapons into Mexico from the United States under any circumstances. Instead they are supposed to call Mexican authorities whenever there is an incident on the Mexican side of the border.
Specifically, agents are supposed to notify the Center for Investigation and National Security in Mexico City as well as local Mexican police closest to the incident. The protocol specifically states that Mexicans throwing rocks or drawing weapons are “time sensitive” offenses and “requir[e] immediate response from the Mexican government.” Once Mexican officials have been notified, protocol directs U.S. agents to “vector responding agencies to the area of the incident.”
As the case of Jose Antonio and those of other victims of cross-border shootings illustrate, however, such niceties are often left on paper. The Nogales, Mexico, police report indicates that Customs and Border Protection did not notify Mexican authorities when they saw two men trying to climb the border fence back into Mexico, nor did they report that rocks were being thrown at U.S. agents.
On September 3, 2012, Arevalo Pedroza, a longtime construction worker, took his family and some friends out for a picnic to celebrate his daughters’ birthdays. Around four p.m., Pedroza pulled into an outdoor recreational area perched on the southern bank of the Rio Grande called the Patinadero. Families with children were everywhere. Some were swimming, some were eating, others were just relaxing in the hot afternoon sun. Pedroza got busy at the grill.
Meanwhile, 200 feet away, on the other side of the river, a Border Patrol pontoon boat was floating by, just keeping pace with the flow of the river. One agent was driving while the other appeared, according to Mexican eyewitnesses I interviewed, to be scanning the riverbank looking for something or someone. Then, on the American side, a Latino man jumped into the river, seemingly trying to evade the agents in the boat by swimming back toward Mexico. As soon as the agents noticed him, the driver floored the engine and sped over to block his path, circling him and creating large waves that made it difficult for him to swim.
“Help me, help me,” the man in the water shouted in Spanish toward the people in the park, who had begun to gather to watch the unfolding scene. “They are trying to drown me.” Waves washed over his head; on at least two occasions, witnesses say, the boat ran directly over him. The crowd began to shout at the agents in Spanish to leave the swimming man alone. Several witnesses told me they were sure the agents were going to drown him.
Suddenly, a quick series of eight to ten gunshots rang out. At first, few on the shore could tell where the shots were coming from, but three Mexican eyewitnesses told me they could see the agents in the pontoon boat aiming their rifles and opening fire directly at the crowd.
Pedroza’s ten-year-old daughter, Mariana, heard a bullet pass by her head. She described it to me as a sharp sound, like something ripping the air as it flew past. Without thinking she turned and ran away from the river as fast as she could. Others in the crowd also fled for their lives.
The whole incident lasted only seconds. Once the gunshots stopped, the confused crowd looked back across the river. The agents remained still for a long minute, still aiming their weapons at the picnickers. Then a woman began screaming at the agents in English, “That’s against the law! That’s against the law!” It was only then that Pedroza’s wife, Isabel, noticed that her husband was lying flat on the riverbank, faceup, blood pouring from his chest. She spun around desperately, looking for help. “They shot him!” she shouted. “They shot him!” She began to wail hysterically.
Other picnickers started shouting obscenities at the agents, who remained motionless in their boat. By now Isabel was screaming in disbelief, “They killed him! They killed him!” Others joined in the screaming and taunting directed at the agents. Finally the agents silenced their motor, as if trying to hear. As the shouts from the crowd grew louder, the agents hit the accelerator and fled upriver.
Pedroza remained motionless. His eyes were open, Isabel recalls, but he was staring blankly at the sky and did not appear to be conscious. His daughters knelt beside him, trying to comfort him, but he wasn’t responding.
An autopsy conducted by the Nuevo Laredo Police Department later showed that he’d been shot one time through his right lung. The Mexican government issued a statement condemning the incident, saying, “The use of excessive or deadly force by the U.S. Border Patrol in this matter is unacceptable.”
The Border Patrol also issued a statement, saying the shots were fired because the agents had been “subjected to rocks being thrown at them from the Mexican side.” The Border Patrol has said that an FBI investigation of the incident is under way, but none of the witnesses I spoke with, including Pedroza’s wife and his friend Josue Gonzalez, who was by his side when he died, say they have ever been contacted. “Even if rocks were thrown,” Gonzalez told me, “the Border Patrol agents were so far away on the other side of the river, they couldn’t even reach them.”
Of the ten incidents of cross-border shootings that we have uncovered, Border Patrol agents claimed in all but two cases that they had fired their weapons in response to rocks being thrown. Of the six that resulted in fatalities, all but one involved alleged rock throwing.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the ACLU, the United Nations, and even the U.S. State Department have all denounced lethal force against rock throwers in international areas of conflict. For decades, Western diplomats have likewise condemned the use of lethal force against civilian rock throwers.
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