U.S. Border Patrol officials said Thursday that internal investigators have found no wrongdoing by agents in two recent cases of alleged abuse--one involving the shooting of a man in Mexican territory and the other concerning an amnesty applicant who charged that officers destroyed her documents.
Moreover, federal immigration officials appearing at a sometimes-rancorous San Diego news conference declared that agents would not back down from using their weapons if faced with danger from either side of the border.
"If they (agents) have to fire, they will . . . even if it's across the border," said Dale W. Cozart, chief patrol agent in San Diego. He added that the "almost imaginary line" of the border will not provide "immunity" for would-be assailants. Cozart said the guidelines represented no departure from longtime patrol policy.
The officials attacked the integrity of the two recent accusers, characterizing the shooting victim--who claims to be an innocent bystander--as a known alien smuggler, and implying strongly that the amnesty applicant was a liar bent on discrediting the Border Patrol.
Harold Ezell, regional commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, parent body of the Border Patrol, said that though exhaustive in-house investigations found no fault on the part of agents, the INS will keep the inquiries open to pursue any new information. He called the charges of abuse wild, frivolous and very outrageous. The investigations are continuing, he added.
The two allegations, the patrol said in a statement, "are examples of the irresponsibility of a small but highly vocal group of critics of the Border Patrol whose only desire is to capitalize on emotionally charged issues which to date have not been substantiated by fact."
Detractors have long maintained that some of the 2,900 Border Patrol agents posted from California to Texas have routinely violated the rights of both illegal and legal U.S. residents.
"We stand by our position that the Border Patrol has been acting in a criminal manner," said Roberto Martinez, a Latino rights activist in San Diego who works with the American Friends Service Committee, the social action arm of the Quaker church.
Martinez has been in the forefront of criticizing patrol agents for alleged abuses, such as the Dec. 21 shooting of Ignacio Mendez Pulido, a 24-year-old Mexican mechanic. Mendez was shot once in the back, the bullet penetrating his spinal column, while he stood about 15 yards inside Mexico in the Otay Mesa area, according to his attorney. Mendez is paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair; the bullet remains lodged in his spine. He has filed a $5-million claim against the U.S. government, contending that agents acted irresponsibly when they fired at him.
The case, which drew a formal protest from Mexican authorities, was reminiscent of the 1985 shooting of a 12-year-old Tijuana youth, Humberto Carrillo Estrada. Though the Border Patrol also denied any wrongdoing in that case, a U.S. District Court judge in San Diego last year awarded the youth $574,000 in damages, rejecting as "incredible" the version of events submitted by the officer who pulled the trigger. U.S. authorities are appealing the award.
In both cases, the Border Patrol has maintained that its officers opened fire after bystanders began pelting them with rocks. Both victims were shot in the back. Marco Lopez, a San Fernando-based attorney, represents both victims.
In the most recent shooting, Border Patrol officials said their investigation showed that the two agents involved--identified for the first time as Cesar Doble, 34, and Felix Martinez, 35--fired their weapons in self-defense, in accordance with patrol guidelines. The agents were under attack by by individuals who pelted them with a "barrage" of potentially dangerous stones, said Cozart, the area's Border Patrol chief. They fired a total of three bullets, Cozart said.
The two agents, each with two to three years of experience, were recently returned to active duty after being assigned to administrative tasks after the shooting, Cozart said.
Though officials declined to say whether Mendez had ever been formally charged as an alien smuggler, authorities said he was involved in such activity. Before the shooting, officials said, Mendez had been in U.S. custody about four times--including once while allegedly driving a vehicle loaded with a dozen undocumented immigrants.
"We believe this gentleman is involved in an ongoing illegal-alien smuggling activity," Ezell said.
Mendez's attorney, Lopez, denied the smuggling allegation, adding that the matter is irrelevant to the agents' decision to open fire.