By Pedro Rios
In less than six weeks four tragic deaths – three civilians and one Border Patrol agent – have marred the U.S.-Mexico border. In a recent case, 16-year old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez was shot dead after allegedly being involved in a rock-throwing incident on Oct. 10 in Nogales, Sonora.
These deaths beg a necessary question – who is in charge of those entrusted to “protect the border” of the U.S. and Mexico? Is it the agents themselves who mourned one of their own after two agents opened fire and shot a fellow agent to death on Oct. 2 in southern Arizona?
Did a lack of leadership and accountability play a role in the death of a San Diego County mother of five on Sept. 28? Valeria Munique Tachiquin Alvarado lost her life as witnesses say she tried to drive slowly away from the plainclothes agents who fired at least nine rounds into her car.
On Sept. 3, Border Patrol agents shot and killed Guillermo Arevalo Pedroza while he was celebrating his wife’s birthday just south of Laredo, Texas. Who should be held accountable for his death? And what of the bullet-riddled 16-year-old Jose Antonio who witnesses say was shot in the back?
These are the latest incidents in a troubling and growing pattern of abuse and excessive use-of-force committed by Border Patrol agents. They also reflect the latest manifestation of a culture of impunity fostered by the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border.
These tragedies are an inevitable result of the vacuum in leadership and the lack of transparency, accountability and oversight at the Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Since President Obama has been in office, his administration has failed to appoint a commissioner and Congress has failed to confirm those placed in temporary, acting roles.
In effect, no one is in charge of the largest police force in the United States as it flanks border communities. Four lives lost, four families changed forever, and a culture that endangers everyone’s safety creeps closer to our doorsteps. It’s no wonder it appears that CBP seems to be out-of-control.
Unless we demand action by the Obama administration, this vacuum of leadership and accountability for questionable shootings will continue unchecked, further endangering civilians and law enforcement alike and undermining our highest values as a country, especially due process of law, and our collective dignity and humanity.
The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) has supported the Tachiquin Alvarado family throughout its ordeal, just as since 2010 we have supported the family of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, the 42-year old San Diego resident who died after a brutal beating at the San Ysidro Port of Entry. After months of vigils, protests, letters and the intervention of federal legislators, a grand jury began probing the killing earlier this year.
As a partner of the Southern Border Communities Coalition, AFSC has worked with sister organizations across the U.S.-Mexico border not only to highlight these cases but also to question the culture of impunity that permits border agents to apparently get away with murder.
Misguided border enforcement policies since 1994 have created a human rights nightmare along border communities with more than 6,000 border crossing deaths. While the majority of these fatalities cannot be attributed directly to Border Patrol agents, the numbers of cases like that of Anastasio – where agents are involved – are rising ominously. The death of Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez marks the 16th death at the hands of the Border Patrol in the past two years and Munique was the first woman and the fourth U.S. citizen killed by Border Patrol agents. Now an agent has been killed by two of his own.
It will take prompt action by the White House to curb abuses, protect civil and human rights, and hold agents accountable for actions that result in deaths.
Our nation is grounded on the values of justice and the rule of law. We entrust law enforcement agencies with ability to protect communities, but when the largest federal police force is allowed to operate with no accountability to the public they swore to serve and protect, that opens the door to an out-of-control police force that has no place in a democracy.
Rios is program director for the American Friends Service Committee’s San Diego office and chairman for the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium.