Tuesday, June 11, 2013


Shootings by U.S.Agents Increase Border Tensions with Mexico

NOGALES, Ariz. — As rocks hurled from Mexico rained down on United States Border Patrol agents one night last October, at least one of the agents drew his gun and fired across the border, striking a teenager 11 times, 7 times in the back. 

The boy, José Antonio Elena Rodriguez, 16, collapsed and died on a cracked sidewalk blocks from his home, under a sign that read “emergencias médicas.” 

The police in Nogales, Mexico, reported that he had been carrying only a cellphone. 

The shooting was not an isolated case. 

He was one of at least 15 people killed by border agents in the Southwest since January 2010, their deaths a jolt to the careful balance of sovereignty and security that underlies a binational debate over immigration reform.

Those shootings — sometimes during confrontations that began with assaults on agents, other times under less clear circumstances — have bolstered criticism of agents and customs officers who operate along the United States-Mexico border. Lawmakers, civil rights advocates and victims’ families in both countries, concerned about what they view as a lack of oversight and accountability, have made angry demands for answers. 

Of the 15 victims, José Antonio was one of 10 who were Mexican citizens, 6 of whom died in Mexico, felled by bullets fired by agents in the United States. Since January 2010, not a single agent has been criminally charged in cases of lethal use of force, and the agency would not say whether disciplinary action had been taken.

Scrutiny heightened last year when the Department of Homeland Security’s acting inspector general, Charles K. Edwards, began a review of policies governing the use of force by the Border Patrol’s parent agency, Customs and Border Protection. He acted after 16 members of Congress signed a letter criticizing the “appalling behavior” of agents in San Diego, where a man in their custody died in 2010 after being stunned by a Taser several times, his hands restrained behind his back. The signers questioned whether the episode was “part of a larger cultural problem.” The review is still under way.
Customs and Border Protection has also commissioned an analysis, looking at episodes in which its agents fired weapons or otherwise used force. A spokesman for the agency said it was reviewing the findings, which have not yet been made public.

On a single page, the lengthy immigration bill under debate in the Senate provides the most decisive response to concerns so far.

 Its Section 1111 would require the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department’s civil rights division to develop new policies on how and when to report use-of-force actions, investigate complaints and discipline agents, an effort to clarify and tighten regulations. 

Often, the task of investigating agents in such cases falls to the local police department.

“There have been some unfortunate incidents in the past, and we want to make sure that we do everything we can as we enforce security to keep them from happening again,” Senator Richard J. Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois who proposed Section 1111, said in an interview.

The latest version of the border protection agency’s use-of-force manual, from 2010, says, “Only that force which is both reasonable and necessary may be used in any given situation.” 

The meaning of “reasonable,” though, has been a point of contention for shooting victims’ families and their advocates, as well as the subject of sharp discussions in Mexican diplomatic circles.

Many of the cases that resulted in a fatal shooting started when rocks were thrown at agents. In the year ending last September, the Border Patrol recorded 249 rock attacks along the United States-Mexican border. 

Agents working here, where only a fence divides bustling city centers on either side, said police officers in Mexico often did little to stop the rock-thowing or to catch the assailants. (Mexico does not have a border-patrol force.)

Shawn Moran, vice president at large of the National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents 17,000 Border Patrol agents, said force was sometimes necessary. 

“When their lives are threatened, when their well-being is threatened, and when they’re in danger to suffer great bodily harm, the use-of-force policies allow them to defend themselves,” he said in an interview. “When you look at the number of apprehensions we have every year, the number of use-of-force incidents is minuscule.”
There were nearly 357,000 captures of migrants at or near the border in 2012.

In a statement, the Mexican Embassy in Washington criticized the shootings as “disproportionate deadly force,” saying, “In recent years, the results of investigations have unfortunately not even resulted in the prosecution of the agents” who have engaged in fatal shootings “or even fired into Mexican territory.”

A spokesman for Customs and Border Protection said agents were permitted to use deadly force to counter threats from either side of the border. 

The agency has a process for investigating complaints when deadly force is used against the United States citizens, legal residents and visa holders at ports of entry. 

“We do not tolerate misconduct or abuse within our ranks,” the spokesman said.

Victims’ families seldom learn the names of the agents involved in the deadly shootings, or the type of discipline they faced as a result of deadly encounters.

Relatives of Carlos La Madrid, 19, an American citizen killed on March 21, 2011, as he climbed a ladder propped against the border fence in Douglas while trying to cross into Mexico, had to get a court order to learn the name of the agent who shot him so they could serve the agent with legal papers, The Arizona Daily Star of Tucson reported. The authorities said that Mr. La Madrid was unarmed and that he had 48 pounds of marijuana in his pickup truck. 

The inquiry is continuing.

On Sept. 3, Guillermo Arévalo Pedroza, 36, was shot to death by an agent while attending a family barbecue along the Rio Grande in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. The agent, chasing by boat a man who was trying to swim to the United States, said he had fired at people tossing rocks at him. 

The investigation is continuing.

From her tidy mobile home here, Taide Elena, 63, waits for answers on the killing of her grandson, José Antonio. No investigator has come to talk to her, she said, so she has tried to piece together what happened through police and autopsy reports.

 Ms. Elena, a legal United States resident who cleans homes for a living, said she did not even know if one or more agents fired the bullets that killed her grandson.

Agents and Nogales police officers said they had been chasing people they suspected of being drug dealers near the border fence when rocks were lobbed at them from Nogales, Mexico. 

There is no indication from the reports or witness accounts that José Antonio, who, his grandmother said, aspired to be a soldier, was involved.

“He was carrying nothing beyond the cellphone I had bought for him,” Ms. Elena said. “I still can’t believe they took his life just because he was walking.” source

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