Reporting from San Diego — A Mexican teenager who pleaded guilty to the execution-style murder of a U.S. Border Patrol agent was sentenced to 40 years in prison Thursday after an emotional hearing attended by family members and dozens of border patrol agents.
Christian Daniel Castro-Alvarez, 17, appeared to hold back tears as prosecutors recounted how he and two other suspects ambushed agent Robert W. Rosas Jr. on a remote border trail east of San Diego in July.
Rosas, a 30-year-old father of two on routine night patrol, was shot multiple times in the back of the head after putting up a fierce struggle.
Castro-Alvarez, 16 at the time, was spared a life sentence in part because he turned himself in and accepted responsibility for the crime, according to federal prosecutors who recommended the 40-year term.
The shooting prompted an international manhunt and border crackdown that continues to this day. The whereabouts of the other suspects, men in their 20s, are unknown. The FBI, the lead agency on the case, would not comment on the status of the investigation.
Castro-Alvarez and the two other suspects, after crossing from Mexico on the night of July 23 intending to rob an agent, encountered Rosas just north of the border fence near the rural town of Campo, about 60 miles east of San Diego. They lured him out of his vehicle by leaving footprints in the road and making noises.
While Castro-Alvarez held Rosas at gunpoint face down on the ground, his accomplices took night vision goggles and other items from his idling vehicle. When Rosas tried to take the gun, a struggle ensued and Castro-Alvarez called for help. Rosas was shot nine times while trying to break free.
Castro-Alvarez, who said he fired only one round, claimed that the other men executed Rosas. All three escaped by fleeing over the border. Castro-Alvarez, who was shot in the hand, left a trail of blood that later provided DNA evidence, prosecutors said. He surrendered to Mexican and U.S. authorities in November and pleaded guilty to a murder charge.
U.S. District Judge M. James Lorenz, in his comments, mentioned Castro-Alvarez's harsh upbringing, saying he was abandoned by his parents and raised by his sister in a one-room shack.
But the crime was a "coldblooded killing," said Lorenz, and anyone aiding and abetting it was equally guilty. The tough sentence, he said, was meant to deter future violence against agents. The shooting, he said, had changed the dynamics at the border.
"It makes it difficult to help people when [agents] might be shot over night vision goggles," Lorenz said.
Rosas' death prompted an outpouring of support from agents and well-wishers across the country, with many people sending donations, diapers and clothing to his family. Rosas' wife, Rosalie, said her children, both under 3 years old, last saw him at the funeral, where his coffin was draped in the U.S. flag. Now, whenever they see the Stars and Stripes, she said they think of their father.
"They say, ‘Mama, that was Papa's flag," Rosalie Rosas said at the hearing.