NOGALES, Mexico -- In early October, a teenaged boy in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico was shot dead by the U.S. Border Patrol. An agent suspected he was throwing rocks and his death is under investigation. It was just the latest in a spate of shootings by the Border Patrol along the border.
The shootings, justified or not, cause outrage in border communities and, one of the biggest issues, they take years to resolve.
Consider a January 2011 case. The FBI in Phoenix said that case is still under investigation.
That makes Zelma Barrón angry. It’s been nearly two years since her son, Ramsés, was killed. She’s standing in a busy park in Nogales, Mexico, on a Saturday morning. A group of teenage cheerleaders practices dance moves to blasting techno music behind her. Traffic slows as it passes by, to honk and wave; locals showing their support for this gathering.
"Who can I ask so this case doesn't stay impune?" Barrón asks.
She doesn’t know whom to turn to and she worries the case will just linger on. Much like this latest case, the Border Patrol said Ramsés, 17, was throwing rocks at agents who were trying to make a drug bust. But two years later, the mother says she has been told nothing about where the case stands. She hasn’t heard from a Mexican government official since four days after her son was killed, let alone any American officials.
The shooting was recorded: The day after the boy was killed, the FBI took the recordings made by one of the Homeland Security cameras posted on immense towers along the Nogales border.
"Nothing, nobody has helped us at all," Barrón said.
Since 2010, 17 people have been killed by U.S. Border Patrol agents. Most of those cases, like that of Barron’s son, remain under investigation by the FBI and therefore outside public scrutiny. Of those 17 cases, seven were killed while they were in Mexico. And in many of those of those cases, the Border Patrol claims someone was throwing rocks at the agents.
But that version of events is disputed in at least two cases. Last September, an agent shot Guillermo Arevalo Pedroza from a Border Patrol boat. The agency said the agents were being attacked with rocks flung from the Mexican side of the border. Arevalo's family and Mexican President Felipe Calderón said the man was simply picnicking with his family.
Clouding the issue is the culpability of some of the victims, such as the 2010 case of Carlos LaMadrid in Arizona. In this case, LaMadrid ran back to Mexico after a failed drug run. His accomplices threw rocks to keep Border Patrol agents from apprehending him. The agents shot LaMadrid as he tried to climb back into Mexico. The FBI in Phoenix said it has concluded that investigation but declined to release details.
The bureau also declined to be interviewed, but released this statement: "When the FBI is involved in an investigative matter it is committed to doing a thorough investigation without time constraints. We understand the public has a right to know, but we also owe the American people the assurance that we will conduct a comprehensive investigation by following the evidence and facts of each case."
Art Del Cueto is a Border Patrol agent in Tucson. He’s also the Tucson Sector’s union president. He explains why it takes so long to investigate these Border Patrol shootings.
"They want to be sure they’re specific in every single investigation. They take so much time because they don’t want to leave any loopholes,” he said.
So people like Barrón, the victim’s mother, wait for years. In the meantime, the number of cases continues to grow.
Homeland Security considers rocks dangerous weapons. So its use-of-force policies allow agents to shoot back at someone throwing at them.
After members of Congress protested, the policy is now under review. The union’s Del Cueto agrees with the policy. It’s not gravel-sized rocks that are being thrown, it’s big rocks. He’s been hit, he said. Once with a 40 ounce beer bottle packed with mud and rocks.
“Oh, it hurt," Del Cueto said. "Knocked me down, I was on the ground. Luckily I was close enough to the border they jumped right away into Mexico and I kind of drug myself behind some mesquite bushes to stop any more projectiles from hitting me.”
The most recent death in Nogales was also blamed on rocks. Sixteen-year-old Jose Antonio Rodriguez was either part of a group throwing rocks at a border agent in Nogales or he was an innocent boy walking along the sidewalk 40 feet away from the border. He was found lying on the ground in a pool of his own blood.
"Seven times, two through his head. And seven through his body," said Luis Parra, a lawyer hired by Rodriguez' family.
A bullet also hit the boy in the arm. Another eight bullet holes peppered the wall over and around his body.
The bullet holes that struck the walls of the building have created much controversy. The building is set at a 45 degree angle to the border wall. Half the bullets face the wall, but the other half would have had to come from further away.
Nogales is a hilly city, so the border wall 40 feet away sits far higher than the building where Rodriguez died. An agent could have fired through the bars that make up the border wall in order to hit the victim, meaning the agent's hand and gun would have been in Mexico. These are questions that Parra is still trying to answer.
"They’re maintaining that Jose Antonio was not involved in any wrongdoing other than perhaps just being in the wrong place at the wrong time," he said.
On this Saturday morning, a small procession winds its way up through the streets of Nogales to the port of entry, shouting for justice. Some carry photos of Ramsés Barrón. Others of Jose Antonio Rodriguez. Their mothers flank the group of chanting children.
"Make them arrest the killers. Don't let this case stay like this. Don't let this case stay like that of Ramsés," said Jose Antonio's mother, Araceli Rodriguez.
She worries that her son’s case will end in silence, forgotten, just like the killing from two years ago.