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

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.

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.