TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — A system for holding U.S. Border Patrol agents accountable over shootings remains complicated and opaque, an Arizona Daily Star investigation has found.
The Arizona Daily Star reports (http://bit.ly/VHP76k) that as the number of agent-involved shootings increases, the investigations into them often leaves the public in the dark about the status of the cases. The newspaper reports, for example, that one Arizona case has remained secret and "ongoing" for almost three years.
Questions have sharpened after agents shot people who apparently weren't threatening them at least twice in Arizona over the last two years.
Still, agents get the benefit of the doubt from the public and prosecutors, and are rarely criminally charged. In the few cases when agents have been prosecuted in Arizona, they've won.
That may be because the shootings were justified, but the secrecy of the process means the public may never know.
In the last three years agents have shot at least 22 people nationwide. Nine of those cases have been in Southern Arizona — four in the last two months and two just last week.
Last Sunday, a Border Patrol agent in the Baboquivari Mountains killed an apparent illegal immigrant — 19-year-old Guatemalan Margarito Lopez Morelos — who, the agency said, struggled with an agent. On Tuesday, an agent southwest of Gila Bend shot and wounded a man who, the agency said, brandished a weapon.
Since January 2010, there have been at least six cross-border shootings by agents, including the one that killed Rodríguez-Salazar's son, José Antonio Elena Rodríguez. When killed, he was on a sidewalk across the 36-foot-wide street along the border.
Two people were on the border fence when agents arrived at about 11 p.m. Rocks flew, though police reports leave it unclear who threw them, and at least one agent fired into Mexico.
Elena Rodriguez was hit at least seven times — twice in the head and five times in the back. Sonoran state police, who responded on their side of the border, responded to the shooting, but it's unclear where the investigation goes from there.
Border Patrol agents are taught to use deadly force only when they or someone else are threatened with death, agency spokesman Bill Brooks said.
The Border Patrol declined to say whether the agents in any of the six recent Southern Arizona shooting cases were reprimanded. "Administrative and disciplinary actions of our employees are not made public," agency spokesman Brooks said in an email.
Jim Calle, the Border Patrol union's lawyer, said in shootings it's "exceedingly rare that an agent faces disciplinary consequences for their conduct."
That's partly because most shootings are legally justified, agents and attorneys said. They argue there are more shootings now largely because more border jumpers resist arrest.
Beyond the benefit of the doubt officers receive, their jobs make them less likely to be charged in the first place. Prosecutors must consider the likelihood of winning a conviction when taking on a case, and it's simply harder to win a case against an agent.
For example, Cochise County Attorney Ed Rheinheimer brought a second-degree murder case against Border Patrol Agent Nicholas Corbett in 2008, arguing Corbett's January 2007 killing of an illegal immigrant was unjustified and a crime. There were two trials, two hung juries and finally Rheinheimer dropped the case.
The Border Patrol agents union lambasted Rheinheimer for prosecuting, saying "he let undue influence from the Mexican government and the radical special-interest groups taint his decision-making ability."
Information from: Arizona Daily Star, http://www.azstarnet.com