By Dorian Hargrove
The family of a Mexican immigrant killed after the panga she was riding in off the coast of Encinitas collided with a U.S. Customs and Border Protection vessel is suing the officers involved in the collision.
The parents of 32-year-old Graciela Lopez Franco from Arandas, Mexico (in the state of Jalisco) filed their lawsuit in federal court on August 20 against three marine interdiction agents: Christopher Hunter, Arian Linscott, and Craig Jenkins.
According to the complaint, 20 people were onboard a panga a few minutes after midnight on June 18, 2015, seven miles off the coast of Encinitas when Border Patrol officers spotted the low-riding boat. Supervisor Hunter, Linscott, and Jenkins, riding in a 38-foot M901 patrol vessel, approached the panga. Once within range, the officers failed to use their intercom or lights on their vessel and instead, reads the complaint, ran straight toward the panga. The officers then directed a “flash-bang” explosion at the immigrants’ vessel. Officer Linscott fired several shots from his gun into the outboard motor, disabling it. The officers then rammed their boat into the panga, splitting it into several pieces.
“The panga’s occupants were hurled into the ocean in darkness,” reads the complaint. “The scene was one of utter chaos. The passengers clung to parts of the capsized vessel. Some of the passengers screamed for help. Of the twenty on board, nineteen managed to grab onto a part of the panga or climb aboard the M901 that had smashed their vessel.”
Lopez Franco was the only person who failed to surface. Officers found her trapped under a large piece of debris, dead.
The following day, media reports of the incident differed. A spokesperson for the Customs and Border Patrol agency told NBC7 that officers ordered the panga driver to stop but instead he tried to evade the 38-foot Border Patrol boat. While doing so, the panga collided with the Border Patrol vessel, causing it to capsize.
Agents said they ordered the person operating the 26-foot-long boat to stop, but the vessel did not yield, so agents fired warning shots. The suspected smuggling boat then collided with the CBP boat, causing the panga boat to capsize.
Adds the complaint, “Defendants both individually and collectively engaged in the unlawful use of clearly excessive force. Their use of force was objectively unreasonable. They acted with oppression, malice and with reckless indifference….
“Defendants were in control of a 38 foot vessel known as a ‘SAFE’ boat. Their vessel, designed as an interceptor, weighed 18,000 pounds, had a range of 400 nautical miles, and can attain speeds of 52 knots per hour. They were armed with automatic and semiautomatic weapons. They were pursuing a small wooden fishing boat without lights, with only an outboard motor for power, which could attain a speed of no more than 20 knots per hour. The panga contained twenty unarmed civilians, most of whom could not swim, and none of whom spoke English.”
The case will move forward in federal court.