“Don’t Treat Us Like Animals”: Outrage Builds After Border Agent Kills Indigenous Guatemalan Woman

In Guatemala, family members are demanding justice for Claudia Gómez González, the 19-year-old Indigenous woman whom a US Border Patrol agent shot in the head and killed last week in Texas near the US border. Border Patrol initially claimed that the shooting occurred after an agent “came under attack by multiple subjects using blunt objects.” The original statement described González as “one of the assailants.” But later the agency changed its story, saying the agent opened fire after “the group ignored his verbal commands and instead rushed him.” However, a resident who lives near where the shooting occured said she never heard the agent yell anything. The Guatemalan Consulate in Del Rio, Texas, is calling for an investigation into González’s death, criticizing the “violence and excessive use of force by the Border Patrol.” At the time of her death, González was headed to Virginia to reunite with her boyfriend. For more, we go to Houston, where we speak with Astrid Dominguez, director of the ACLU’s Border Rights Center. We also speak with Sarah Macaraeg, an award-winning investigative journalist, in St. Louis, Missouri.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Claudia Gómez González. That is the name of the 19-year-old indigenous Guatemalan woman who US Border Patrol agents shot in the head last week, killing her in Texas near the US border. Claudia’s nickname was Princesita, or “Little Princess.” The Guatemalan Consulate in Del Rio, Texas, has called for an investigation into her death, while criticizing the “violence and excessive use of force by the Border Patrol.”

Border Patrol initially claimed that the shooting occurred after an agent, quote, “came under attack by multiple subjects using blunt objects.” The original statement described Claudia as “one of the assailants.” But later the agency changed its story, saying the agent opened fire after, quote, “the group ignored the verbal commands and instead rushed him.”

AMY GOODMAN: But a resident who lives near the shooting said she never heard the agent yell anything. At the time of her death, Claudia was headed to Virginia, where her boyfriend, Yosimar Morales, lives. Yosimar posted this emotional video message online.

YOSIMAR MORALES: [translated] First off, good evening. I want to thank the people who live in Texas at the border. Thank you for all the support you have given me. And to social media, thank you for the support to continue moving forward. I know that losing a family member is a painful thing, losing a loved one. Despite all the plans that one has to see each other again, unfortunately, it didn’t happen like that. My girlfriend was killed while crossing the border. An immigration agent shot her. Unfortunately, she was shot in the head and killed immediately. I’m asking, please, for everyone who sees this video, support me in demanding justice, in bringing to justice the person who did this. Losing a family member is painful. It’s tragic, losing a loved one. I’m asking for your help in demanding justice. Thank you.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Claudia Gómez González’s family says she was attempting to come to the United States to further her education. This is her mother, Lidia González.

LIDIA GONZÁLEZ VÁSQUEZ: [translated] “I’ll save some money,” she said. “I’ll earn money for my studies,” she said. But, unfortunately, she was unable to do that. My poor little girl! My little baby! No, no, no. This can’t be. She’s gone, my baby. That’s how it is. I want justice for my girl, because it’s not fair for them to do this. … Now, if people are able to help me retrieve my baby’s body as soon as possible, that’s what I want. We can’t do anything else now. She’s dead. She’s dead.

AMY GOODMAN: The shooting death of Claudia Gómez González is not an isolated incident. A recent investigation by The Guardian newspaper revealed the US government has paid over $60 million over the past decade to settle claims against Border Patrol. This includes at least 20 wrongful death claims filed against CBP. That’s Customs and Border Patrol.

To talk more about these stories, we’re joined by two guests. Astrid Dominguez is director of the ACLU Border Rights Center. And Sarah Macaraeg is an award-winning investigative journalist and contributor to The Guardian. Earlier this month, she wrote a three-part investigation into Border Patrol violence. But we’re going to begin with Astrid Dominguez.

Talk about exactly what you know happened to Claudia.

ASTRID DOMINGUEZ: Good morning, Amy. We know that last week, on Wednesday, May 23rd, according to Border Patrol, Claudia Patricia Gómez González crossed the border with a group of immigrants. Border Patrol arrived to the scene after someone reported illegal activity, and encountered the group.

What we know after is that Border Patrol states the group attacked the agent with blunt objects, calling Claudia one of the assailants, and shot her in the head. On Friday, Border Patrol retracted and doesn’t call her an assailant anymore, but a group — a member of the group that was crossing. And the agency states that the agent was no longer attacked by a blunt — wasn’t attacked by a blunt object, but the group rushed to the agent, and the group didn’t follow any commands.

What we also know is from the neighbor who recorded this incident right after it had happened. There is the reason why Border Patrol should be wearing body-worn cameras. This would give us more clarity as to what happened to Claudia and what led that agent to shoot Claudia. We have that video in which Miss Marta screams at the agents and protests the violence that took place right at her backyard.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Astrid, you’ve been working on this issue for quite a while. Your concerns? Could you talk about Customs and Border Patrol and their tactics as they attempt to stem the flow of migrants coming across the border?

ASTRID DOMINGUEZ: Sure. We have several concerns about this particular case, is: What happened to the three immigrants that crossed with Claudia? What is going to happen to them? Will they be deported? They shouldn’t be deported. They should have legal representation. And they might be key witnesses. We need to know what happened to Claudia. And they should be telling their story without fear of being intimidated.

Now, this agency has a track record of violence. This isn’t the first case, sadly, where immigrants are killed at the hands of Border Patrol. There has been, in the past eight years, around 50 people that have been killed by the hands of Border Patrol. And the agency also has a very bad track record in terms of accountability and oversight. We’re talking about an agency that has a record, and they have not — the officers, when they violate policy, are not accountable for their actions.

Just an example, the 20/20 video that probably you’ve seen of the teenage boy Cruz [Velazquez]. He was a teenage boy that was crossing the San Diego border, and he was suspected of carrying liquid meth. The agents asked the teenage boy to drink the liquid meth right there, against policy. The child died right after that. Now, these agents are still on the job, and there is no discipline, or there was no action taken, as far as we know. There is a lot of reforms that this agency needs. And among them, we’re talking about the use of force and their policy manuals, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Claudia’s aunt, Dominga Vicente.

DOMINGA VICENTE: [translated] This isn’t the first person who has died in this country. There are various people. They are treating us like animals. And this isn’t the way it should be. I’m asking the authorities and the institutions, impose some discipline or call upon the US government to stop treating us in this way, like animals.

AMY GOODMAN: That is Claudia’s aunt, Dominga. I wanted to bring Sarah Macaraeg into this conversation, as she says she’s not the only person who’s been killed. Talk about your investigation, Sarah.

SARAH MACARAEG: Thank you for having me on, Amy. I’m glad to be here to talk about this, because what I found when I looked at fatal encounters with Border Patrol agents over the last 15 years, not including just fatal shootings but all manner of encounters, I found, counting Claudia’s death now, 98 fatal encounters with Border Patrol agents in the last 15 years. And that includes shootings, as I mentioned, and shootings in which incidents like what happened to Claudia, you know, that they’re a pattern among them, among those fatal encounters. But the fatal encounters also include a whole ‘nother litany of violence. As Astrid mentioned, there have been fatal encounters that have happened as a result of malice and negligence. In addition to the incident that happened with the teenager attempting to cross, there have been people who have drowned. There have been people who have died from supposedly nonlethal force, people who died after being pepper-sprayed and tased and beaten.

I found that through looking at civil suit settlements the agency has paid out over the last, you know, dozen or so years. I separately looked at fatal encounters because what I started seeing in all the civil suit settlements were a number of wrongful death claims, and I felt that that probably only hinted — the number was so small, and I had heard of so many other incidents, I felt that the number of claims that have actually settled out only hinted at what was a broader pattern of violence. And so, I saw 20 wrongful death claims over, you know, a dozen or so years. But digging deeper, looking at fatal encounters, some of which have been dismissed in court, some of which have never made it to court — because another important point that Astrid shared are that, in many instances, some of the eyewitnesses are migrants themselves. And, you know, without those eyewitness accounts, it’s very hard to bring a complaint. The cases that we do know about, you know, share features that came up in the shooting of Claudia Gómez González. And the only reason we know about some of these other cases is because of the persistence of family members in demanding justice and because of solidarity of border communities in supporting family members in those claims.

This is not the first shooting, by far, in which we’ve seen agents allege, you know, that people were throwing objects at them. Most prevalently, that’s been rocks. There have been a number of cross-border shooting incidents where alleged rock throwing has come up. But there have also been those shootings inside the United States, one of which was even settled under the current Department of Justice, in which a man was alleged to have thrown, you know, what an agent called basketball-sized rocks at him from above. That agent was back at work within six days, local news media reported. What the lawyer in that case told me, that the current Department of Justice settled out that case for a half-million dollars, told me that the medical examiner’s report was at odds with the agent’s account, because the man died from two downward-trajectory bullet wounds and was of very slight stature to be throwing basketball-sized rocks. Rock throwing and the throwing of objects allegedly has come up so often in use of deadly force among Border Patrol agents that it even prompted a change in policy in 2014, which stated that, you know, after looking at many incidents — and this came from the current chief of the Border Patrol at the time — what a study of those incidents found was that agents could, in many instances, simply move out of harm’s way, that deadly force wasn’t necessary. And so, that prompted a change in policy regarding thrown objects in 2014.

And the shooting of Claudia Gómez González is one that’s taken place since then, that seems to be, from what we can tell, although the facts are obscured, which is another common occurrence in many of these fatal shooting incidents — but from what we can tell, this shooting would seem to be in violation of that policy, regarding their initial claim, which they’ve already walked back.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Sarah, I wanted to ask you — you mentioned that you ferreted out many of these cases through looking through civil suits. Many of these deaths got very little publicity. But, certainly, the Customs and Border Patrol knows exactly who dies in interactions with them. What’s your sense of the accountability within the agency in terms of the agents involved in these cases?

SARAH MACARAEG: I think that when people say this agency — that there’s a culture of impunity in this agency, when people say that this agency acts as if it’s above the law, I think that that is absolutely a fair statement. What I found when I looked at anything I could find regarding accountability and oversight for some of these incidents — you know, there was a shooting that was not dissimilar from that of Claudia Gómez González that goes back to 2007, although I found fatal incidents before that and fatal shootings before that. But the one that occurred in 2007 is notable. It was a young man, approximately 20 years old, had recently crossed the border. According to the civil suit, he was with siblings. The Border Patrol agent that showed up showed up as a result of a National Guard alert. And soon afterwards, a young man was shot and killed, in the words of the complaint, “execution-style.” The government went on to settle that civil suit for $750,000. In a very, very rare instance, the agent in that shooting was actually criminally charged. And twice he walked away free after a hung jury. That, him being — having brought charges against him is very rare. A conviction is even rarer. We’ve yet to see that.

We’ve actually just seen another Border Patrol agent who was found not guilty of murder, although he’ll be retrialed again this — he’ll face a retrial again this fall in the shooting death, a cross-border shooting death, of a teen who allegedly threw rocks. So those are two very rare instances in which criminal charges were brought, but in which there were no convictions.

Meanwhile, in terms of the agency’s own internal reviews, they set up a National Use of Force Review Board. But if you look at any public report, any report that that review board has made public, they have found, you know, all of the incidents — all of the incidents in accordance with standing policy at the time, although some of those incidents have actually compelled the agency to even change their policy, regarding, you know, firing at shooting vehicles and regarding allegedly thrown objects. And so, you know, there’s very little accountability that we can tell has taken place.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Astrid back into the conversation. Astrid Dominguez, talk about the new ACLU report detailing the widespread abuse and neglect of unaccompanied immigrant children detained by border agents during the Obama administration, the ACLU uncovering documents detailing verbal, physical, sexual abuse of migrant children; the denial of clean drinking water, adequate food; failure to provide necessary medical care; detention in freezing, unsanitary conditions. Can you talk about what further you found and what you’re demanding?

ASTRID DOMINGUEZ: This report was published last week. As you well stated, these are documents that the agency provided that go from 2009 to 2014. The agency provided over 30,000 pages of internal documents of complaints that have been placed against CBP from children abuses. And this is — I mean, the stories are appalling. There are stories from kids claiming that the agents not only beat them, but also psychologically mistreated them, calling them dogs, threatening them with rape or, you know, to let them — they were going to let them die. The kids were refused basic necessities, just like you mentioned, like water, food. A girl was sexually assaulted: An agent opened up her legs and touched her so hard that she screamed. And these documents are on our website at the ACLU. This —

AMY GOODMAN: So, we only have 30 seconds, but what you’re calling for in those cases and in the case of Claudia?

ASTRID DOMINGUEZ: So, first of all, what we need is an investigation. We need to know that these types of abuses are not happening anymore. Even though this was during the Obama administration, we ought to make sure that CBP has changed and that these abuses are not currently happening. Second of all, the oversight agencies over CBP, which is the OIG, the Office of Inspector General, the Civil Rights Civil Liberties Office and the —

AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds.

ASTRID DOMINGUEZ: — their internal affairs, should also have greater powers to make sure that agents are held accountable for their actions and that these abuses no longer happen to kids who are in Border Patrol custody.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both very much for being with us, Astrid Dominguez, director of the ACLU’s Border Rights Center, speaking to us from Houston, and Sarah Macaraeg, award-winning investigative journalist, contributor to The Guardian, speaking to us from St. Louis.