Above: A memorial in Reynosa, Mexico, for migrants who died at the border.
On July 7, 2012, Juan Pablo Perez Santillan was fatally shot in Mexico by a U.S. Border Patrol agent standing on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande near Brownsville.
“Que se muera el perro—let the dog die,” shouted one of the agents as Perez’s brother begged for help on the Mexican side of the riverbank, according to a lawsuit filed by the family. Perez and his brother were unarmed. Perez had been standing watch for a group of immigrants as they swam across the Rio Grande in an attempt to enter the U.S. without documents.
The Border Patrol agent shot at Perez at least five times, using a high-power scope, according to the lawsuit. One of the bullets pierced Perez’s chest and he later died at a hospital in Matamoros. The 30-year-old left behind eight children and a widow. The identity of the agent hasn’t been released to the public.
But a recently completed internal investigation by U.S. Customs and Border Protection of 67 shooting incidents by Border Patrol agents may offer some hope of justice for the family. The Perez case is one of just three that the Department of Justice has stepped in to investigate for possible criminal charges. Another fatal shooting at the Texas-Mexico border, which was filmed by a bystander, also was flagged for further investigation.
On September 3, 2012, Guillermo Arevalo Pedraza, a 37-year-old bricklayer was fatally shot by a U.S. Border Patrol agent on an airboat. Arevalo was barbecuing at a park on the Rio Grande near Nuevo Laredo with his wife and two young daughters when he was shot in the thigh and chest. Arevalo died in his 9-year-old daughter’s arms.
The decision by the Border Patrol not to pursue criminal charges against the agents involved in 64 of the cases has outraged civil rights advocates.
“We had higher expectations that when the new commissioner came in there would be more accountability and transparency,” said Vicki Gaubeca, director of the ACLU Regional Center for Border Rights. “It seems the biggest reason they’ve closed the cases is because the agents conducted themselves in the manner they were trained.”
The 67 shooting incidents that were reviewed included 19 fatal incidents from 2010 to 2012. The agency has released little information about the fatalities and none of the agents involved have been punished beyond reprimands.
The investigation came amid growing criticism and pressure to reform what many view as a rogue agency. In 2013, the CBP commissioned a closer look into the use of deadly force by agents. That report, by an independent Washington-based nonprofit called the Police Executive Research Forum, found that agents fired unnecessarily at people and vehicles and that Border Patrol officials failed to conduct thorough investigations of shooting incidents. The damning report remained classified until it was leaked to the Los Angeles Times in February 2014, creating an uproar.
A month later, in March, newly appointed U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner Gil Kerlikowske vowed to crack down on the use of excessive force by agents and provide better training. Kerilkowske quickly replaced the head of the agency’s internal affairs division with FBI agent Mark Morgan, who was charged with investigating the 67 shootings.
Advocates are questioning why agents involved in some high-profile cases were cleared of wrongdoing. For example, in 2010, Border Patrol Agent Jesus Mesa Jr. shot a 15-year-old boy, Sergio Adrian Hernandez Guereca, who was standing in Juarez. Hernandez was unarmed and had peeked out from behind a concrete pillar when he was shot in the face by Mesa.
“The U.S. government’s position is that because a bullet landed in Mexico it’s outside their jurisdiction, which is ridiculous,” said Gaubeca, of the ACLU. “They need to be reminded that the Constitution still applies at the border.”
The third case still under investigation stems from an October 2012 incident in Arizona. In October of that year, Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, who was 16, was walking home in Nogales, Mexico, when he was shot 10 times—eight bullets pierced his body as he lay on the ground—by a Border Patrol agent standing on the U.S. side of the border fence. The agent said people on the other side of the fence were throwing rocks.
In the three cases, criminal charges are still possible, but that’s little consolation for the families whose loved ones’ cases have been closed, said Gaubeca. “It’s clear the agency wants to put it all behind them and move forward,” she said. “But the families haven’t moved beyond the sadness, the tragedy of the loss of their loved ones. They still deserve justice.”