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U.S. Border Patrol's Response To Violence In Question

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U.S. Border Patrol's Response To Violence In Question

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U.S. Border Patrol's Response To Violence In Question

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's look more closely at the use of force by the U.S. Border Patrol. Many agents risk their lives guarding the borders, including the boundary with Mexico. They also face questions about their use of force. Listeners may recall our recent report on this subject.

NPR's John Burnett asked a Border Patrol training supervisor how he teaches trainees to handle violent incidents. A spokesperson stopped the question.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: What are the hierarchy of responses to rock throwers?

UNIDENTIFIED BORDER PATROL SUPERVISOR: We're not going to...

BURNETT: The first action, second action, third action?

UNIDENTIFIED BORDER PATROL SUPERVISOR: ...discuss the hierarchy or - OK. That's it. That's it.

INSKEEP: John Burnett has continued reporting. He's been asking if agents were held accountable for violent incidents. Some may find the opening moment of this story disturbing. It's one of numerous cases in which agents fired across the border and killed Mexican nationals.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)

BURNETT: Picnickers in a riverside park in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, react in horror as a man in a yellow baseball cap, named Guillermo Arevalo, lies on the bank of the Rio Grande, bleeding to death. It's a warm Monday evening in September 2012. He has just been shot by an agent on a Border Patrol airboat on the river. The Border Patrol says the officer shot at rock throwers, and the incident is under investigation. Witnesses say Arevalo was not throwing rocks.

A woman, unseen in this jerky cellphone video, begins to scream before she's drowned out by the boat's deafening engine.

(SOUNDBITE OF CELLPHONE VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Screaming above boat engine) That's against the law! That's against the law!

(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT ENGINE)

BURNETT: That's against the law! That's against the law! she shrieks.

This is exactly the controversy confronting the Border Patrol these days as a chorus of critics asks: Are federal officers who guard the territorial borders of the United States above the law? Bob Hilliard did not become an attorney to take on civil rights cases. He's a big-time personal injury trial lawyer in Corpus Christi who sues companies like GM and Coca-Cola. His nickname is The Bulldog. Today, Hilliard represents families in three Border Patrol shootings where the agent was in the U.S., and the victim was in Mexico.

BOB HILLIARD: And I also realize their job is very difficult but, you know, it doesn't give them license to shoot and kill innocent Mexican nationals.

BURNETT: He has filed civil wrongful-death lawsuits against the officers and the federal government in the case of Guillermo Arevalo, shot on the banks of the Rio Grande, and in two other cases.

HILLIARD: There's an undercurrent of prejudice that is really just palpable to me, that you can taste; that, you know, this isn't a valuable life, this is just a Mexican who got shot. Why the uproar?

BURNETT: The law says a foreign national cannot sue the U.S. government for an injury or death that happens outside the United States, even if it's only a few feet across the border. A federal judge in El Paso threw out one of Hilliard's lawsuits on these grounds. It's now before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. So for now, civil trials will not hold the government responsible for federal agents who kill Mexicans in Mexico. And two recent reports reveal that the Border Patrol seldom holds its agents accountable, either. Last December, The Arizona Republic published the results of a year-long investigation. It examined 42 deadly shootings by border agents, and found that in none of the cases did the officer face administrative penalties. Investigative reporter Bob Ortega says two things struck him: that use of lethal force is rare but for those agents who kill someone on the job, there's no public accountability.

BOB ORTEGA: The degree to which no action is taken, the degree to which it's opaque and impossible to find out what happens when an agent uses deadly force under questionable circumstances - to me, is something that's, you know, a matter of great concern.

BURNETT: And it's not only issues of deadly force. Last week, the American Immigration Council, an immigrant advocacy group, released a report that compiled the results of 809 complaints of excessive force and physical abuse. In the cases that were resolved, 97 percent of them led to no action. Counseling was the discipline in most of the others, says Guillermo Cantor, senior policy analyst with the American Immigration Council.

GUILLERMO CANTOR: What our study showed is that for the most parts, the complaints that are being filed with the agency don't go anywhere.

BURNETT: An independent review and an inspector general's report both recommended the Border Patrol improve its use-of-force doctrine and its citizen complaint process. Customs and Border Protection is considering a standing request by NPR to interview a top agency official regarding its use-of-force policy. Thad Bingel left the Border Patrol five years ago as the agency's chief of staff. He's now a partner at Command Consulting Group. He says his former agency - where he still has friends - wrestles with several challenges: a legacy of secrecy, an unclear process to investigate field complaints, and growing pains from expanding so fast. The Border Patrol doubled from 10,000 to 20,000 agents in just three years. But in the end, Thad Bingel says, border police work comes down to snap judgments under difficult circumstances.

THAD BINGEL: No matter what training you do, no matter what policies you put in place, you're going to have incidents of violence on the border, and agents will are going to respond to that. And you hope that most of the time, the vast majority of them are going to make the right call. But it's a very difficult environment in which to do that 100 percent of the time.

BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.

INSKEEP: As John mentioned, we're still working to schedule a talk with a top Border Patrol official. Tomorrow, we hear from two border congressmen pushing the agency for greater accountability. This is NPR News.

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