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U.S. undertakes review of border officers' use of force

The initiative comes amid a sharp increase in fatal confrontations along the Southwest border. Mexican government officials will get briefings on closed investigations involving force.

December 07, 2012|By Richard Marosi and Brian Bennett, Los Angeles Times
  • A fence separates San Luis, Ariz., and the Mexican state of Sonora, right.
A fence separates San Luis, Ariz., and the Mexican state of Sonora, right. (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has launched what it calls a comprehensive review of its officers' use of force amid a sharp increase in fatal confrontations along the Southwest border.

The initiative, which appears to be the most far-reaching of its kind in recent years, calls for an assessment of current tactics and the participation of an independent outside research center.

Mexican government officials, who have condemned the shootings, will also be provided briefings on closed investigations involving force, according to a memorandum prepared for Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

The memorandum, dated Oct., 24, 2012, is from David V. Aguilar, the agency's deputy commissioner.

Since 2010, 16 people have been killed in fatal confrontations with Border Patrol agents and customs officers, prompting unprecedented levels of scrutiny and criticism from some U.S. Congress members and border activists. Agency guidelines permit agents to fire weapons against people suspected of throwing rocks, a practice that critics consider excessive.

Recent incidents that stirred protests include the shooting in October of a 16-year-old suspected rock thrower in Nogales, Mexico, and the September shooting of a man on the banks of the Rio Grande in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Mexican authorities say the man was picnicking with his family.

In San Diego, protests erupted over the 2010 death of a man who suffered a fatal heart attack after being Tasered in a scuffle. About half of the fatal incidents in recent years involved rock throwers. In most cases the agents involved were cleared of wrongdoing.

The Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General is also conducting a review of the incidents. U.S. authorities will ramp up efforts to improve coordination with Mexican authorities in high-risk areas, according to the memorandum. They are also pressing Mexico to establish a specially trained border unit.

Among the most significant elements in the review, experts and officials said, is the involvement of an unspecified third party, described as a federally funded research and development center.

"Any time you can get an independent party to do a review, that is really the best way to go," said Alonzo Pena, a former Department of Homeland Security attache at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. "There will never be confidence in a review being done by the agency itself," he said.

Vicki B. Gaubeca, the director of the regional center for border rights for the ACLU of New Mexico, said she welcomed "anything they can do to prevent unnecessary deaths, so agents resort to the lethal use of force only as a last resort."

Among rank-and-file agents, the new measures were greeted with a mix of resentment and cautious optimism. In recent weeks, supervisors have distributed the use of force guidelines to agents to refresh their knowledge of the policy. Chief patrol agents from across the Southwest were summoned to Washington, D.C., in October to discuss the policy.

Some agents questioned the role of the Mexican government, saying their actions contributed to the violence. "They refuse to police their northern border and they allow free rein by criminal organizations," said Shawn Moran, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union representing Border Patrol agents. "But when one of their citizens is killed after assaulting a Border Patrol agent, they raise hell."

Customs and Border Protection officials said the review should be completed by the end of January.

richard.marosi@latimes.com

brian.bennett@latimes.com

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