After Shootings, Extended Silence: What The Border Patrol Hasn't Said The agency has repeatedly used deadly force along the U.S.-Mexico border while providing little or no information. Steve Inskeep describes four notable killings that have raised questions.
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After Shootings, Extended Silence: What The Border Patrol Hasn't Said

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After Shootings, Extended Silence: What The Border Patrol Hasn't Said

After Shootings, Extended Silence: What The Border Patrol Hasn't Said

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene. The U.S. Border Patrol says it is opening up. The head of that agency has promised greater transparency. He recently won praise for releasing documents about his agency's use of force. This morning, my colleague Steve Inskeep has a story of what the Border Patrol has yet to disclose.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's information about specific Border Patrol shootings, the agency's use of force along the U.S.-Mexico border. Earlier this year, we crossed a bridge from El Paso, Texas, to Juarez, Mexico. Our interpreter pointed out murals painted on a concrete surface.

How would you translate this phrase?

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: I would just say, we judge the assassins in Mexico.

INSKEEP: Oh, suggesting that the Border Patrol should be tried in a Mexican court?

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: Correct.

INSKEEP: Is that the implication of that?

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: Yeah.

INSKEEP: That harsh word, assassins, refers to incidents like one within sight of the mural. We heard about it, when we met a Mexican woman where it happened, by the border bridge. Her name is Maria Guadelupe Guereca Betancourt. She's a mom. I asked her how many kids she had.

INSKEEP: (Spanish spoken).

MARIA GUADELUPE CUERECA BETANCOURT: (Spanish spoken).

INSKEEP: (Spanish spoken).

BETANCOURT: (Spanish spoken).

INSKEEP: (Spanish spoken).

BETANCOURT: (Spanish spoken).

INSKEEP: (Spanish spoken) There were seven, she said. Now there are six. Her son Sergio was shot and killed. He was 15. Between El Paso and Juarez, the border is the Rio Grande. More precisely, it's a culvert with sloping concrete walls and little water. It's easy to walk down into that channel. Maria Guereca acknowledges her son did walk down in the culvert on June 7, 2010.

BETANCOURT: (Spanish spoken).

INSKEEP: He went out of curiosity, she says, to watch the Border Patrol chase other teens. Kids would cross the culvert to touch the fence on the U.S. side. The Border Patrol said it was not curiosity. The agency contended people in the culvert were trying to sneak across the border. A bystander took cell phone video of what happened next.

The blurry video shows Border Patrol agents descending into the culvert. An agent grabs a suspect by the collar. Other people in the culvert throw rocks. Clutching the suspect with his left hand, the agent aims a weapon with his right. He's aiming at a person some distance away. That person is 15-year-old Sergio Guereca.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)

INSKEEP: The teenager was killed with a bullet below his left eye. The teenager's family sued. But their case was thrown out. A court found that since the teenager was killed on the Mexican side of the border, his family had no standing to sue. Maria Guereca told us she does not believe justice was served.

BETANCOURT: (Spanish spoken).

INSKEEP: Sometimes, she said of her son, I think he's coming home. Then I remember, he's not. The Border Patrol said the agent fired to protect himself from rocks being thrown from the Mexican side. And it is common that agents are pelted on the border. Yet something about this case prompted reporter Bob Ortega to investigate more closely.

BOB ORTEGA: The first document that we were able to obtain was the actual incident report that the agent filed.

INSKEEP: Ortega reports for the Arizona Republic, which obtained thousands of Border Patrol documents under the Freedom of Information Act. Those documents were heavily redacted with many lines blacked out. But the agent's 2010 report was still illuminating.

ORTEGA: The account that the agent gives in the incident report is different from the account that the Border Patrol put out in a public statement at the time. At the time, they said that the agent fired because he was surrounded by rock throwers, the implication being that he had no alternative. The actual incident report that he filed, he doesn't mention anything about being surrounded by rock throwers. He does say that rocks were thrown at him. But in his description, there's nothing that would imply the kind of incorrect detail, as it turns out, that the Border Patrol released at that time.

INSKEEP: In fact, the agent who fired says that he shot someone who was 20 to 25 yards away from him. Is that right?

ORTEGA: That's what the document states.

INSKEEP: The Justice Department issued a statement finding no violations of Border Patrol policy. The government has not disclosed exactly how the agent's life was in danger from an unarmed teenager up to 75 feet away. In other shootings, the agency has said even less.

It's gone years without saying if a shooting was right or wrong. Consider a 2012 incident on the border at Laredo, Texas. Agents opened fire from a boat. They were apparently chasing a man in the water at the time. But they shot a man on shore, in a park, on the Mexican side. His family said he was celebrating his wife's birthday, along with their daughters. This year, we sat down with Robert Harris, the Border Patrol Commander in Laredo.

You were in charge at the time of this sector. What really happened?

NEIL PATRICK HARRIS: Well, that situation is still under investigation. We still don't have the conclusion of that investigation. The FBI still has that case. So, you know, that's not one that I can - that I can comment on.

INSKEEP: But maybe you can tell me this much - the agent who fired, is he on duty or off duty?

HARRIS: I'm not going to comment on that - on that part of the investigation.

INSKEEP: That was his answer, even though the shooting took place 18 months before we talked. This is not normal for most law enforcement agencies. After a shooting, it's more typical to assign a police officer to desk duty, investigate quickly and offer public updates. But the Arizona Republic's Bob Ortega says silence lasting years has been normal for the Border Patrol. He's tracking another incident from 2012. The Border Patrol shot through the border fence at Nogales, Arizona. And a teenager was killed on the Mexican side.

ORTEGA: In this case, we are now a year and a half later. The name of the agent has never been released. Whether there was any internal discipline ever taken against that agent, we don't know. There is a essentially no information, whatsoever, that has been put out by the Border Patrol, Customs and Border Protection, Homeland Security, the FBI, anybody, about whether they determined that the agent's actions were correct or incorrect.

INSKEEP: Ortega says information from other sources offers reason to doubt the teenager posed a threat.

ORTEGA: The autopsy indicated that Jose Antonio was shot 10 times in the back and back of the head.

INSKEEP: That's a Mexican autopsy.

ORTEGA: Yeah. He was shot in the back.

INSKEEP: In fairness, the investigation may be slow partly because it involves several agencies and Mexico's government. But a lawyer for the teenager's family affirms to NPR they have heard no results. In all, reporter Bob Ortega says about 20 Border Patrol cases in recent years make him curious.

ORTEGA: Clearly, there are situations where someone throwing a rock you - that's a very dangerous thing. And you face the possibility of serious injury or death. There are also circumstances in which people may be throwing rocks, and you're not in any danger.

INSKEEP: Is there room to have some sympathy for an agent in that situation? He has to make a split-second situation about whether his life is in danger or not.

ORTEGA: Oh, absolutely. Look, I mean, these agents face challenging, difficult situations. At the same time, this is part of the job. And it's interesting to note that if you look at other police agencies that also deal with these kind of situations along the border, they all have a variety of rules, relating to the use of force. And in many of these cases where both agents and local police have responded, the cases that we've looked at, it's the Border Patrol agents who are the ones who opened fire.

INSKEEP: A new leader at Customs and Border Protection has promised more openness. Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske held a news conference 10 days ago. He released the agency policy on the use of force, a move that outside groups praised. Kerlikowske was also asked about accountability for the past. He was asked if anyone was disciplined for a series of incidents listed in a recent report. The commissioner says he's sure some agents were. But it's hard to know.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GIL KERLIKOWSKE: Our databases and our ability to conduct those investigations is a bit diffused. And it was very clear to me, particularly given what I know about use-of-force databases and major city police departments, that our inability to track this information has made that response difficult. I think you'll be hearing much more about this in the future.

INSKEEP: Now there's more to investigate. The same day as the news conference, Border Patrol agents in Arizona chased a suspected narcotics-smuggler. Reporter Bob Ortega says the man tried to flee, first by car, then on foot.

ORTEGA: One of the Border Control agents who was running after him shot him - shot him in the back of the head. We don't know yet from what distance. But in this particular case, what we do know from the Pima County Sheriff's Office, which is also investigating the case, was that the bullet entered from the back of the man's head and that he was unarmed. So there are some questions about that case.

INSKEEP: When we asked the Border Patrol about the facts in this story, the agency had no response. For seven weeks, NPR has invited Senior Border Patrol officials to talk about the agency's use of force. That invitation remains open. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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