May/ June 2013 Over the Line

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

By John Carlos Frey

Commenting in 2000 on the Israelis’ use of force against Palestinian rock throwers, Mary Robinson, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said, “The superior firepower [by Israel] has been used, I believe, excessively—particularly against youths throwing stones.” Since then, the Israeli Defense Forces adopted an official policy (not consistently implemented) of deploying nonlethal rubber bullets and other crowd-disbursement methods instead of using deadly force to deal with rock throwers.

More recently, when Egyptian soldiers confronted stone-throwing protestors in Cairo’s Tahrir Square with lethal force during the uprising against Hosni Mubarak, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon both condemned the “excessive” use of force. Clinton said she was “deeply concerned” about the violence and urged Mubarak’s security forces “to respect and protect the universal rights of all Egyptians.”

Already, the Border Patrol’s killing of Mexicans on their own soil has complicated and compromised U.S. diplomacy. In June 2011, Border Patrol agents shot another Mexican national, Alfredo Yañez, claiming that he had been throwing rocks and a nail-studded post from the Mexican side of the border. In response, then Mexican President Felipe Calderon condemned the killing publicly and, in a meeting with Secretary Clinton, demanded that U.S. authorities swiftly investigate the “use of firearms to repel an attack with stones.”

Sixty organizations, including the ACLU, Amnesty International, and Catholic Charities, responded in kind to the Yañez killing, signing a joint letter to Congress asking for an investigation and calling for an immediate end to the Border Patrol practice of shooting at rock throwers. “Deadly force should always be an action of last resort, and only used if an imminent risk of death is present and no other tools exist to ameliorate a dangerous situation,” reads the letter. “To shoot stone throwers is exceptionally disproportionate and inhumane.”

On July 7, 2012, Juan Pablo Santillan, a thirty-year-old father of four, and his twenty-eight-year-old brother Damian were walking along the southern bank of the Rio Grande collecting firewood for their mother to use in cooking tamales. Across the river they noticed some Border Patrol agents about seventy yards away, high on an embankment, and tried to ignore them. “Border Patrol agents would always use their bullhorn and shout obscenities at us across the river,” Damian recalls. “They would call us beaners and stupid Mexicans. I didn’t like being around them.” Damian’s mother told me she stopped bringing her grandchildren to the river to swim because Border Patrol agents constantly harassed them.

Damian had his back to the agents when he heard what he thought were several gunshots. He instinctively dove to the ground. Seconds later he looked up and saw his brother lying on the ground faceup. Blood was pouring from his chest, and he was not moving.

Damian recalls looking away from Juan Pablo’s bleeding body, across the river, and says he noticed several Border Patrol agents staring his way. One was holding what appeared to be a large rifle with a scope on it, pointed at him. He began to panic. He needed to take cover for his own sake, but his brother might be dying. He dashed to his brother’s side. If he got shot, well, he would die trying to save his brother’s life. But what to do? He was far from a hospital, even from a phone.

In desperation he yelled out at the agents across the river, one agent’s rifle still pointed at him. “My brother is dying!” he cried in Spanish. The agents, he says, did not respond, and instead started to move away from the scene. “Can you please help me!” That was when one agent stopped, according to Damian, and yelled back, also in Spanish, “Let the dog die.”

The official Border Patrol report claims that Juan Pablo Santillan had a gun and aimed it at the agents, and that they fired in self-defense. But Mexican officials, and the five neighbors and family members I spoke with, all told me unequivocally that Juan Pablo did not have a gun that day and had never even owned one. According to an investigation conducted by Mexican police, a gun was not found on his body or at the scene.

A year ago, the border advocacy group No More Deaths published an extensive report on migrants’ treatment by U.S. Border Patrol agents, called “A Culture of Cruelty,” based on 4,130 interviews with 12,895 individuals who had at one point been in Border Patrol custody. The group identified widespread patterns of abuse, including denial of water to migrants who were caught after wandering days in the desert, denial of food, failure to provide medical treatment, verbal abuse, and physical abuse. The report recounts instances of abuse including Border Patrol agents threatening detainees with death, enforcing stress positions and sleep deprivation, turning cell temperatures down to frigid levels, and kicking, beating, and sexually assaulting detainees.

Repeatedly, CBP officials have declined to answer my questions about any of these specific incidents. The agency has instead issued statements like this one, in response to my questions about Santillan’s death:

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) respects the sovereignty of the country of Mexico and its territorial integrity. Without the express authorization of the Mexican government, CBP personnel are not authorized to physically cross the international boundary when conducting operations. Regarding the use of firearms on the border, CBP law enforcement personnel are trained, required to comply with and be thoroughly familiar with all aspects of the use of force and firearms guidelines.

One former CBP commissioner, W. Ralph Basham, who served from 2006 to 2009, briefly spoke with me some months ago, when I was reporting on a Border Patrol killing on the U.S. side of the border. “I’m certainly sympathetic to those individuals who lose their life as the result of some of these activities,” he said, but added, “These agents have to be able to protect themselves when they feel like their life is being threatened, or the life of other officers.” Still, a 2010 Associated Press investigation found that border agents are assaulted at a dramatically lower rate than police officers (3 percent compared with 11 percent)—and with far less serious weapons, such as rocks or knives rather than firearms.

According to a 2004 CBP use-of-force document I obtained through a source, “Verbal warning to submit to authority shall be given prior to use of deadly force if feasible, and if to do so would not increase the danger to the officer of others.” Yet in Juan Pablo Santillan’s case, and in the nine other cross-border shootings I have uncovered over the past five years, I have found no evidence that verbal warnings were given before agents opened fire into Mexico. In fact, none of the agents involved have even publicly claimed that they issued such warnings.

Details of agent shootings are also protected from public scrutiny by Customs and Border Protection. If an investigation is undertaken internally, it is not made public. If an agent is disciplined, that is not made public either. If CBP refers a case to the Justice Department for a potential criminal investigation, that, too, is kept from the public.

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.


  • 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


  • 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. Jos 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 Jos 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 Jos Antonio died, I realized that there are NO ROCKS in the area. None, I could not find a single rock in the area.