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Border Killings Prompt Scrutiny Over Use Of Force

Nov 24, 2012
Originally published on November 24, 2012 6:26 pm

The Department of Homeland Security is examining its policy on deadly force along the U.S.-Mexico border. In less than two years, U.S. Border Patrol agents have killed 18 Mexican citizens there — including eight people who were throwing rocks.

Last month, Border Patrol agents responded to a report of two drug smugglers jumping the fence between the twin cities of Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales in the Mexican state of Sonora. As the agents approached, a group of people on the Mexican side began throwing rocks. The Border Patrol says the agents told the people to stop. When they didn't, one agent opened fire.

Within days, news outlets in Tucson and Phoenix identified the victim: 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodríguez. The teen, who was not one of the smugglers, was shot numerous times through the fence, on Mexican soil.

It was not an isolated incident. Since 2010, six of the eight people killed by Border Patrol agents while throwing rocks were on the Mexican side of the border.

"By no means [am I] minimizing our own challenges and our need to keep strengthening security on our side of the border," says Ricardo Alday, a spokesman for the Mexican Embassy in Washington, "[but] this is about the disproportionate use of force, the use of lethal force in these cases."

Border Patrol didn't respond to a request for comment, but it says rocks have caused hundreds of injuries to agents in just the last year. The agency is on the record saying it considers rock-throwing to be deadly force, which sometimes demands the same in response.

In a redacted copy of the Customs and Border Protection's Use of Force Manual obtained by NPR, nowhere in the readable parts is rock-throwing mentioned. Former Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Ralph Basham told the PBS show Need to Know that agents need latitude because when they encounter people, they often don't know the threat they face.

"You don't know what they represent," Basham said. "It could be that day worker or it could be a terrorist or it could be a cartel member smuggling drugs or people."

The Border Patrol has vehicles reinforced with cages to protect agents from rocks. Critics question why agents don't use rubber bullets or just get out of range of the rocks.

Vicki Gaubeca wants to know why agents are rarely held accountable when they kill someone in Mexico. Gaubeca, who heads the ACLU's Regional Center for Border Rights in New Mexico, says a Border Patrol agent should face the same discipline a police officer would away from the border.

"To argue otherwise would mean U.S. agents could intentionally shoot Mexicans or Canadian citizens across the border with no accountability for their actions," she says.

Mexico's ambassador has said the perception that Border Patrol agents have impunity to shoot across the border and kill Mexican citizens adds to mistrust and damages security between the two nations.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

And now to a story from Arizona where the Department of Homeland Security is examining its policy on deadly force along the U.S.-Mexico border. In less than two years, U.S. Border Patrol agents have killed 18 Mexican citizens there, including eight people who were throwing rocks. NPR's Ted Robbins reports.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: One evening last month, Border Patrol agents responded to a report of two drug smugglers jumping the fence between the twin cities of Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora. As the agents approached, a group of people on the Mexican side began throwing rocks at them. The Border Patrol says the agents told the people to stop. And when they didn't, one agent opened fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORT)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good evening. New details are emerging tonight surrounding a teenager shot and killed by a Border Patrol agent last week.

ROBBINS: Within days, news outlets identified the victim:

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORT)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: ...sixteen-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez.

ROBBINS: He was not one of the smugglers, but he was shot numerous times through the fence, in Mexico. Many in Mexico were outraged, and it was not an isolated incident. Since 2010, six of the eight people killed by Border Patrol agents while throwing rocks were on the Mexican side of the border. Ricardo Alday is a spokesman for the Mexican embassy in Washington.

RICARDO ALDAY: By no means, I'm minimizing our own challenges and our need to keep strengthening security on our side of the border. This is about the disproportionate use of force, the use of lethal force in cases like this.

ROBBINS: The Border Patrol didn't respond to our request for comment, but it says rocks have caused hundreds of injuries to agents in just the last year. The agency is on record saying it considers rock throwing to be deadly force, which sometimes demands the same in response. We did get a copy of Customs and Border Protection's Use of Force Manual. Some of it is redacted, but nowhere in the readable parts is rock throwing mentioned.

Former Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Ralph Basham told the PBS show "Need to Know" that agents need latitude when they encounter people because they often don't know what threat they face.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NEED TO KNOW")

RALPH BASHAM: You don't know what they represent. It could be that day worker or it could be a terrorist or it could be a cartel smuggling drugs or people.

ROBBINS: The Border Patrol has vehicles reinforced with cages to protect agents from rocks. Critics want to know why agents don't use rubber bullets to respond or just get out of range of the rocks. And when agents do kill someone in Mexico, Vicki Gaubeca wants to know why they're rarely held accountable. Gaubeca, who heads the ACLU's Regional Center for Border Rights in New Mexico, says a Border Patrol agent should face the same discipline a police officer would away from the border.

VICKI GAUBECA: And to argue otherwise would mean that U.S. agents could intentionally shoot Mexicans or Canadian citizens across the border with no accountability for their actions.

ROBBINS: Mexico's ambassador has said the perception that Border Patrol agents have impunity to shoot across the border and kill Mexican citizens adds to mistrust and damages security between the two nations. Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.