New York Times: “10 Shots Across the Border”

by Joseph McKeown

The death of a Mexican teenager four years ago in Nogales, Mexico and its aftermath has again led to serious questions about the agency’s use of excessive force as well as corruption within Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Border Patrol. In 2012, when Nogales police and the Border Patrol were alerted to two drug smugglers at the border wall that splits Nogales, one Border Patrol officer, Lonnie Ray Swartz, who claimed that rocks were being thrown at the officers, opened fire. He shot sixteen-year-old José Antonio Elena Rodríguez on the Mexican side of the border. Rodriguez’s death was, in the words of James F. Tomsheck, who at the time led CBP’s Office of Internal Affairs, the “most egregious’’ of any excessive-force cases he’d seen at the agency, telling the New York Times that he felt ‘‘angry and sickened. Even if he had been throwing rocks previously—it’s conceivable, but there’s no evidence. But this was evidence of a Border Patrol agent shooting an unarmed boy.’’ By not charging the agent, Tomsheck said, the message would be that it’s “open season at the border.’’

Tomsheck, who has since left the agency, has been a severe critic of CBP’s handling of violence and abuse claims as well as CBP leadership, which he said had ‘‘a well-established history of intentional misinformation. Having sat through these meetings for years, after every one of these shootings, there’s an effort to spin and distort facts and obscure a clear understanding of what actually occurred.’’ In his position in Internal Affairs at the agency, he claimed that he held little actual power to investigate and remedy the misconduct claims. “We had a mandate to hold the Border Patrol accountable but were given very few to no authorities to do that job,’’ he told the New York Times.  ‘‘From Day 1, they aggressively resisted every effort.’’

In the past years, CPB has been accused of many instances of excessive force and abuse, including the shooting death of a Mexican man who was at a park with his family when a Border Patrol boat opened fire on a crowd of people, as well as other instances. A 2013 investigation by the Arizona Republic found that since 2005, CBP agents had killed forty-two people, and few had faced any repercussions even when the justification for the shooting was in doubt. While on average one CBP officer was arrested every day between 2005 and 2012—144 of them for corruption-level offenses—historically, Border Patrol agents have been rarely disciplined for misconduct allegations. In the case of Rodríguez, the officer who killed him was indicted three years after the teenager’s death, and only after the family’s civil lawsuit against the officer brought the case to public attention.  

One possible reason for the increase in misconduct cases over the years has been the dramatic surge in the number of border agents after September 11, along with the militarization of the agency. The number of Border Patrol agents doubled from 11,000 to 22,000, during President Bush’s second term, and the border patrol received such military hardware as drones, assault rifles, and Black Hawk helicopters. This arguably resulted in inexperienced agents with excessive firepower and a military-like mindset who often escalated tense situations.

In their defense, CBP agency leaders have said that critics don’t understand the threats Border Patrol agents face, and that it’s easy for those to judge who don’t “wear green,” a reference to the border patrol uniforms. With dangerous drug cartels operating on the border, agents must be vigilant in the threat of extreme violence. "Anything that is out there can be used against our agents," Hector Garza, spokesman for the Laredo local of the border agents union, told the Los Angeles Times. "Mesquite wood, firearms, rocks, you name it." The National Border Patrol Council, which exclusively represents approximately 18,000 Border Patrol Agents and support personnel, claims that despite being one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the US, Border Patrol agents “use lethal force seven times less than the average law enforcement officer nationwide. The facts don't lie, we stand by our agents and the truth.”