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Impunity, Strife and Criticism Loom Large over US Customs and Border Patrol

Families of shooting victims, civil rights attorneys and whistle-blowers take Customs and Border Patrol to task.

El Paso, Texas, United States: It was supposed to be just another day in the life of teenager Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez. No one ever imagined that an evening walk to pick up a hotdog at a local convenience store would result in ten bullets being shot into his body, instantly bringing his young life to an unexpected end.

“He was just beginning his life … and had a lot of dreams. He wanted to explore the world, to join the army as a soldier,” said Araceli Rodriguez Salazar, the mother of Jose Antonio, to teleSUR in an extended interview. Rodriguez considered him to be “the best son any mother could ever want to have … he was very affectionate and had a lot of aspirations.”

Jose Antonio’s life was not taken by a drug war related drive-by shooting, or by a street peddling drug dealer wanting to rid himself of a witness, or even during a foiled attempt to cross the border without papers only to succumb to the hot Arizona desert near where he lived. Instead, his life was taken by a Border Patrol agent.

Jose Antonio was unarmed, walking down International Avenue in his hometown of Nogales, Mexico and was just 16 years old at the time of his death.

“You don’t spray 10 bullets into a boy for purposes of justice or simply knocking him down or because you’re confused,” Luis Parra, the lawyer representing the Rodriguez family, told teleSUR.

Much to the disappointment of scores of Mexican families living near the border, in either the United States or Mexico, Jose Antonio’s death is not an isolated case. Over the last decade, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents have killed at least 46 people on either side of the border, including some 15 U.S. citizens. Among these incidents include six fatal shooting deaths of Mexican nationals on their own soil at the hands of U.S. agents from their side of the border, several unarmed men who were beaten to death, a Mexican citizen who was forced to drink a highly concentrated liquid methamphetamine which killed him, and other civilians who were shot, pepper-sprayed or shocked with stun guns.

In the midst of an embattled period in which the Department of Homeland Security’s Border Patrol finds itself weathering harsh public criticism and close scrutiny, an investigation undertaken by teleSUR — based on hundreds of pages of legal documents, numerous interviews with border patrol agents and supervisors, civil rights attorneys, family members of CBP shooting victims and immigration rights activists — reveals an air of impunity in the nation’s largest law-enforcement agency, as a result of a sharp rise in CBP recruitment and a lack of internal controls.

Rookie and Poorly Trained Agents Fill the CBP Ranks

The indignation and anger in Valentin Tachiquin’s voice is unmistakable. It has been two years since his daughter was shot five times and killed during a traffic stop by a plain-clothes Border Patrol agent, but it may as well have happened yesterday. Tachiquin explained to teleSUR that, “the kids still miss her mother … and the fact remains, I’m never going to see my daughter again. It doesn’t matter what I do, if I cry, if I don’t cry, it’s all just terrible.”

The agent that killed Tachiquin’s daughter, he told teleSUR, “wasn’t hired because of his performance or because he was a good officer. He was not able to get a job prior to ending up with the Border Patrol and doesn’t deserve to carry a badge of any sort, he definitely doesn’t know how to handle a gun properly, and he thinks he is above the law.”

Tachiquin’s sentiments echo that of many family members of unarmed victims killed by other Border Patrol agents, as well as experts closely following the issue.

According to Chris Rickerd, a staff attorney of the American Civil Liberties Union who has long been monitoring Border Patrol impunity, part of the problem is rooted in the CBP hiring process.

“The means by which [potentially hired Border Patrol] personnel have been screened has led to a significant percentage who are unfit to carry a gun and a badge,” he told teleSUR.

Rickerd pointed to the Tachiquin fatal shooting whereby, “in Chula Vista, it turns out that the CBP agent that was involved had been deemed unfit and fired by the [Southern California] Imperial County Sheriff’s office, having severed ties with him before the incident itself.”

Court documents confirmed Rickerd’s comments, revealing that the agent had been suspended four times for misconduct while employed as an Imperial County deputy.

Research into the roots of how poorly trained agents are increasingly filling the ranks of the CBP points squarely to an unprecedented recruitment and hiring drive. The drive first occurred during the later half of the Bush administration and continued into the first term of the Obama administration. Recruitment tactics included a multi-million dollar ad campaign and relaxed hiring standards. Over 8,000 new agents were brought into the ranks of the CBP over a three-year period, from 2006 to 2009. As much as a third of the total CBP force is comprised of these newer staff.

Border Patrol agents, it is accepted, have a dangerous job. Almost two-dozen agents themselves have died while on duty since 2007. However, most of the deaths of agents have been related to friendly fire and accidents. One of the deaths was that of Brian A. Terry, who was killed with weapons originally shipped to Mexico through the controversial “Fast and Furious” program overseen by the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Agency and the Department of Justice, Congressional investigations later revealed.

Ostensibly, the ATF program was attempting to improve efforts to detect drug traffickers and increase evidence with which to prosecute their crimes. Mainstream media reports at the time described the program as being disorganized with weapons having been “lost,” though Congressional whistle-blower testimony later claimed that the weapons were sent in a more deliberate manner, with even purported favoritism toward the Sinaloa cartel.

While the most recent comprehensive White House-sponsored immigration reform package has been delayed until the end of this year’s mid-term elections following the summer crisis of unaccompanied minors pouring across the border, there is no indication that a prominent aspect of the proposed legislation will be left out of its next incarnation: virtually all recent immigration reform proposals and adopted policies have included additional border militarization and beefed up CBP hiring. Obama’s most recent proposal was no exception in this regard. Consequently, the problem of yet more poorly trained agents being taken on by the CBP is set to maintain its relevance well into the future.

This past September, Mark Alan Morgan, who is the CBP’s acting internal affairs head, revealed to the press that he does not know of any officer or agent having been terminated much less punished for any of the civilian deaths over the course of the last 10 years. Morgan’s confirmation stands in sharp contrast to several Clinton officials who have previously told the press of not remembering any equivalent killings throughout the 1990s. To most experts, family members and lawyers interviewed by teleSUR, a culture of impunity surrounding CBP comprises another crucial factor behind the continued civilian killings.

Culture of Impunity?

A veteran Border Patrol agent and supervisor who spoke to teleSUR on the condition of anonymity, gave a rare glimpse into the culture of impunity that has increasingly come under criticism and scrutiny.

“You just don’t make mistakes, you just can’t,” said the veteran agent when asked what happened when agents committed routine human errors that may lead to the strife of others. The agent said there were no significant internal mechanisms or oversight that acted to prevent such mistakes or acted as opportunities for redress for those wronged by the CBP, much less for families of those who have been killed.

“At this point, the CBP is out of the picture. They are in the defense mode and have been that way for almost two years now,” said Parra in respect to Jose Antonio’s ongoing case.

In fact, there is an internal mechanism for redress within the CBP. There is an Internal Affairs division within the CBP which is headed by a director who is charged with significant oversight responsibilities and power. However, the internal unit was not given any real teeth to investigate or enforce internal regulations, so as to prevent corruption and/or impunity killings, until two years ago. By that time, scores of unarmed civilians were already being killed by agents and was quite prominently on CBP’s radar of internal problems. For the same reason, it is perhaps not surprising that supervisors are unsure where to turn for these internal errors, mistakes or grievances, or simply dismiss the Internal Affairs unit as not being worthwhile.

“You see, the problem is that [Border Patrol] agents have a school-yard bully mentality,” one high-ranking Consulate official told teleSUR. “Problems like that happen not just some of the time, or sometimes, but virtually all of the time,” said a subordinate of the same official.

James Tomsheck was acutely aware of these problems we have learned thanks to the dissent and outspoken accounts recently given by the former director of CBP’s Internal Affairs department.

Internal Dissent, Strife Surround Alleged Impunity, Rampant Corruption at CBP

Voices were raised, disagreements were laid on the table and views clashed during a tense, closed-door meeting between high-ranking CBP and Internal Affairs officials in April 2010. The issues were important ones after all, as one official questioned whether shooting deaths should be within the remit of Internal Affairs. The meeting, incidentally, occurred just months before Jose Antonio was killed.

On one end of the spectrum was James Tomsheck who argued in favor of a more expansive oversight role for the Internal Affairs department he headed. But his department was not authorized to conduct inquiries into the shootings until several years later, in October 2012.

According to James Wong, one of Tomsheck’s deputies during his tenure, senior CBP officials “did not want an independent internal affairs, they wanted someone who would do what they wanted to do,” he said to the Center for Independent Reporting (CIR). Both Tomsheck and the now retired Wong have spoken to the press in the wake of what many perceive to have been a demotion of Tomsheck, who was re-assigned out of the Internal Affairs department of the CBP this past June.

While Tomsheck was yet another source who pointed to prior recruitment drives as being responsible for poorly trained agents increasingly coming to proliferate CBP ranks, his former deputies and him have gone beyond that criticism, in their now public reprimands of the agency. Between Tomsheck and others who served during his tenure, corruption estimates range between 10 and 20 percent of the CBP work force. The CIR characterized Tomsheck’s criticism of the agency as the most scathing ever given by a high-ranking CBP official.

In being asked about the 28 civilian deaths that have been committed by CBP agents since 2010, Tomsheck described to the CIR what read like a cover-up of sorts, as “in nearly every instance, there was an effort by Border Patrol leadership to make a case to justify the shooting versus doing a genuine, appropriate review of the information and the facts at hand,” in spite of at least a quarter of the deaths having been labeled as “highly suspect” by Tomsheck.

For his part, Wong told The Arizona Republic that cases in which people running away were shot in the back, were the most egregious to him: “Border Patrol agents would say, ‘They were throwing rocks.’ I’d say, ‘Why didn’t you back up?’ They’d say, ‘You’ve never been an agent; you don’t know what being rocked is like.’ But the physical requirement of running in one direction and throwing hard enough behind you to cause physical injury… confused me [and] was disturbing.”

According to documents obtained by The Arizona Republic after nearly two years of Freedom of Information Act requests and appeals, several investigations pursued by the Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General related to shooting deaths in 2010 and 2012, were thwarted by their superiors.

New Head at CBP Helm, Cameras Now Promised

Just a month after Wong and Tomsheck’s criticisms were amply published by CIR, PBS and The Arizona Republic, Gil Kerilkowske, the new head of the CBP, pledged to deliver on promises made last year to have body cameras affixed to agents to monitor their activities as soon as this month.

Kerilkowske explained that delays in implementation were a result of the process being “complicated” and “expensive,” but will move forward with the pilot program as a “first step” toward making the agency more transparent and accountable.

Rickerd of the ACLU reacted to Kerilkowske’s promises of a new era of transparency marking his tenure at the CBP, with criticism. Rickerd told teleSUR that, “stakeholders should be part of the process, including non-governmental and non-law-enforcement people,” but that there wasn’t any indication that such inclusion would be undertaken by the CBP. Rickerd said that the CBP, as a law-enforcement agency, has “very good examples from other law enforcement agencies of this and [the ACLU] hopes that the CBP adopts this model.”

In the meantime, border-based families on both sides of the Rio Grande will be left hoping for a future where the CBP won’t be characterized by civilian shooting deaths, rookie recruits and impunity.

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