“Over the Line”: U.S. Agents Shooting Dead Innocent Mexicans Across the Border With Impunity

Democracy Now*

over the lineHAVANA TIMES – A joint investigation by the Washington Monthly and the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute has found over the past five years U.S. border agents have shot across the border at least 10 times, killing a total of six Mexicans on Mexican soil. The killings have gone unpunished after a court ruled the Mexican victims have no standing to sue in U.S. courts since they died on their own soil.

Investigative reporter John Carlos Frey writes: “The picture that emerges from this investigation is of an agency operating with thousands of poorly trained rookies and failing to provide the kind of transparency, accountability, and clear rules of engagement that Americans routinely expect of law enforcement agencies.”

Frey joins us to discuss the shootings and why he fears that the current immigration consensus in Washington on “border security” could increase Mexico’s civilian toll.

AARON MATÉ: We turn now to a report that reveals the sharp rise in cross-border shootings by U.S. agents on the Mexico border. A joint investigation by the Washington Monthly and the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute has found over the past five years U.S. border agents have shot across the border at least 10 times, killing a total of six Mexicans on Mexican soil.

The exposé is called “Over the Line.” Investigative reporter John Carlos Frey writes, quote, “The picture that emerges from this investigation is of an agency operating with thousands of poorly trained rookies and failing to provide the kind of transparency, accountability, and clear rules of engagement that Americans routinely expect of law enforcement agencies.”

One of the victims Frey writes about is José Antonio Rodríguez. He was killed last year in the Mexican border town of Nogales as he went out to buy a hot dog. U.S. border agents shot him eight times. He was 16 years old. Taide Elena Rodríguez was his grandmother and primary caregiver.

TAIDE ELENA RODRÍGUEZ: [translated] You get really mad. You need a lot of courage. You feel really powerless. So many things go through one’s mind that one can’t make sense of. For example, all I can picture is my grandson thrown onto the floor. I feel like I’m going to go crazy, because I can’t understand how somebody could be so evil to kill a child who’s not doing anything. He was just walking on the sidewalk. The only thing he did wrong was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As I told a reporter—he said to me, “What would be justice for you?” Justice for me is seeing the person or the people who did this in a court in front of a judge, sentencing them. That is what I want to see. I don’t want anything else. I know that won’t bring Antonio back, but that is what I want.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Taide Elena Rodríguez, the grandmother and primary caregiver of 16-year-old José Antonio Rodríguez, shot by U.S. Border Patrol in Mexico last year.

To find out more, we’re joined now by investigative reporter John Carlos Frey. His article is called “Over the Line.” It appeared in the Washington Monthly this week.

Welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: Tell us more about José, but also put this in this bigger context of the number of Mexicans who have been killed as U.S. border guards shoot across the border.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: This is a strange and recent phenomenon. We actually have U.S. federal agents who are firing their weapons into a sovereign country. And in the past couple of years, they’ve actually killed six people. They’ve actually shot 10 times into Mexico, wounding a couple of others, and in some cases we don’t even know what happened. So, we’re talking about Mexico, our neighbor, our friend to the south, basically receiving arms, bullets from federal agents.

And the insidious part of all of this is that the U.S. public knows nothing about this. Elements about the cases, the histories, the details of these incidents are kept from the public. We don’t know the agents’ names. We don’t know why. We don’t know anything about the incidents. So I traveled up and down the border talking to as many people as I could for the report.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us some of the stories you learned.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: There’s one instance in a park where a husband and wife were celebrating the birthday of their two daughters. The husband got shot and killed, shot in the heart.

AMY GOODMAN: Where was it?

JOHN CARLOS FREY: This is in Nuevo Laredo. They were across the river, across the Rio Grande, in Mexico. And he died, in a public park with children and families that were out for a barbecue. Also, in South Texas recently there was a—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s turn to a clip.


AMY GOODMAN: One of your clips from the interviews you did with the family members of the victims. Guillermo Arévalo Pedroza was shot dead by U.S. Border Patrol agents September 3rd, 2012, in Nuevo Laredo, as you said. At the time of the shooting, he was grilling fajitas with his wife Isabel and their two children. This is the interview you did with his wife, Isabel.

NORA ISABEL LAM GALLEGOS: [translated] When I turned around, I saw that my husband was lying on the floor.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: [translated] He was sleeping with his mouth open or closed?

NORA ISABEL LAM GALLEGOS: [translated] Mouth open. My daughter went over to him and started screaming. She was screaming, “My father! My father!” He was bleeding. They killed him.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: [translated] You weren’t throwing rocks? You weren’t yelling profanities?

NORA ISABEL LAM GALLEGOS: [translated] No, no, nothing. Absolutely nothing.

AMY GOODMAN: John Carlos Frey, how is this happening? What are the laws? And what was the accountability after he was killed?

JOHN CARLOS FREY: If you ask the U.S. Border Patrol what their protocol is about firing across the U.S.-Mexico border, they won’t give you one. So I went to Mexico, and I found out that there is an agreement between the two countries, where U.S. agents are not allowed to fire into the sovereign country of Mexico. As a matter of fact, they’re supposed to contact Mexican officials if there’s an incident that emanates from the Mexico side of the border. So, as far as I could tell, these cross-border shootings are a violation of protocol, as well as peace treaties. We have actual peace treaties with the country of Mexico, where we’re not supposed to deal with Mexico in an armed sort of way.

What’s happening, I believe, is that the agents are poorly trained. The agents shoot first, ask questions later. We also have a policy with the U.S. federal agents that they can fire their weapons if people throw rocks. So if you throw a rock across the border, you can open fire and kill somebody. Rocks are considered lethal force. If we look at other zones of conflicts around the globe, we have actually brokered deals to try and get rock throwing and lethal force taken out of the system, but we don’t do that here at the U.S.-Mexico border. We can actually fire at rock throwers.

AARON MATÉ: The case of Juan Pablo Santillán, he was shot while collecting firewood.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: He was about 70 yards away, and that’s 210 feet, across a river, Rio Grande, in a bank—on a bank collecting firewood for his mother, who was going to cook tamales to sell on the street. He was shot in the heart. Border Patrol agents say that he was armed and tried to fire at them. No gun was ever found on his body or at the scene. Anybody I talked to said the man never owned a gun, never shot a gun. Ballistics tests were done. He had no gun powder residue on his hands. And it looks like this was just Border Patrol agents out for target practice. This is what I heard from some unnamed sources, that Border Patrol agents actually fired at him for the hell of it.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverse it: If Mexican border agents were firing into Texas or Arizona and killing residents there, what would happen?

JOHN CARLOS FREY: Well, we know that we’ve had the National Guard on the U.S.-Mexico border, and I think we’d have military forces on the border if federal officers from Mexico shot and killed six U.S. citizens in the past two years, which is what has happened in Mexico. This would be an international incident, and I don’t think that the United States would stand for it.

AARON MATÉ: Now, one case has gone to an appeals court, but it was ruled that because the killing took place on Mexican soil it’s not within U.S. jurisdiction?

JOHN CARLOS FREY: Correct. A couple of years ago, a 15-year-old was shot and killed in Juárez, Mexico, by a border agent. His name was Sergio Hernández Güereca. He was shot in the face and died instantly. And he was standing in Mexico. The family sued the U.S. government for wrongful death, and the case was actually thrown out because he died in Mexico. He has no standing. Mexicans cannot sue in U.S. court if the incident occurred in Mexico. So there’s no legal recourse. Basically, what we have now is a system where border agents can fire their weapons into Mexico, kill someone, and not suffer any legal repercussions.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, President Obama was just in Mexico. The debate around immigration is raging now.


AMY GOODMAN: The legislation that is being introduced calls for thousands more border guards. Talk about the significance of this for what you’re finding.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: What I’ve found in this particular investigation is one of the reasons this is happening is because we have poorly trained guards. In 2006 and ’07, we hired about 8,000 more, lowered standards. And we have a lot of rookies on the force now, and they’re basically taught to shoot their weapons. If we increase the Border Patrol force by thousands more, as you say, increase militarization at the border, I think we’re going to have more incidents here. We’re talking about dealing with immigration or immigrants in a militaristic way, as opposed to in a human way. And what we’re seeing now is the result of using guns instead of diplomacy. And I suspect, since we’ve seen such an increase in the past couple of years, that this is going to escalate.

AARON MATÉ: The Senate immigration plan is centered around securing the border as a condition for granting a path to citizenship for all these undocumented workers. So, do you see that as a case of concern?

JOHN CARLOS FREY: It’s a terrible case of concern. We have actual large U.S. cities along the U.S.-Mexico border that are becoming militarized—San Diego, El Paso, Nuevo Laredo, Nogales—who have drones flying around in their backyards. They have border guards that are running up and down the border all over the place. We have thousands of armed-to-the-teeth guards that are aiming their weapons at Mexico. So it feels like a war zone down there, and I think it’s going to get a little bit worse.

AMY GOODMAN: The response of the authorities as you did this piece?

JOHN CARLOS FREY: You’re suspecting that there is a response. Every time I’ve tried to get responses from authorities, any sort of information, documents, any sort of answers to the questions that I had, I’ve been met with mute responses. There are no responses. These cases are locked down. I don’t know the names of the agents. I don’t know why this has happened. In many of these cases, there’s actual video. Video cameras are up and down the U.S.-Mexico border. That video is not available to the public. So these cases have been shut down and closed, not just for months; even after the investigations have concluded, we still don’t get the information.

AMY GOODMAN: John Carlos Frey, we want to thank you very much for being here and for this important report, investigative reporter working on behalf of the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. His latest piece called “Over the Line” appeared Monday in the Washington Monthly. We’ll link to it at democracynow.org.

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