A mother, a wife and a grandmother joined forces this weekend to seek justice for their loved ones who they say are victims of Customs and Border Protection.
They clenched pictures of those killed in Border Patrol-related incidents as about 50 people sang and carried signs in front of the white iron cross with José Antonio Elena Rodríguez’s picture at the corner of the doctor’s office where he died next to the DeConcini Port of Entry in Nogales, Sonora.
The newly formed Border Patrol Victims Network held a 48-hour vigil and fast in Ambos Nogales to call attention to the deaths and reach out to other families in similar situations.
“We want to show them we are here and we are not going anywhere,” said Shena Gutiérrez, who returned to Arizona for the first time since her husband, José Gutiérrez Guzmán, was left in a coma after he tried to enter the country illegally through the San Luis Port of Entry in 2011.
By uniting all the families, “maybe our voices will be heard,” said Ana Ceja, whose nephew José Antonio was killed last October by a Border Patrol agent who fired through a fence. The autopsy report said he was shot at least eight times in the back.
The Border Patrol said the agent, whom it has not named, was hit with rocks when he responded to reports of drug smugglers climbing the border fence. A witness from Nogales, Sonora, who was walking behind José, said the teen was not part of any group throwing rocks. The investigation is still pending.
Three families form part of the network at the moment, two from Arizona and one from California, Ceja said, but the goal is to use the vigil and fast to reach out to more people across the country. Volunteers from local organizations including No More Deaths and the Human Rights Coalition from Tucson and the Border Justice Collective from Nogales, Sonora, are also working with them.
Shootings involving Border Patrol agents have left more than 20 people dead since 2010 — eight of them in the Tucson Sector.
For Guadalupe Guerrero, the mother of Carlos LaMadrid, a 19-year-old U.S. citizen who was killed by an agent as he tried to climb the border fence to Mexico to evade authorities, it’s been therapeutic to spend time with other families going through similar situations.
“It’s not until you are in their shoes, that you feel the pain,” she said. “I never imagined the pain I’m feeling and how hard I’m having to fight for justice.” The Department of Justice didn’t prosecute Border Patrol agent Lucas Tidwell, but Guerrero filed a lawsuit against the federal government that is still pending.
Gutiérrez’s husband, Gutiérrez Guzmán, now 44, was deported on March 21, 2011, but he tried to come back a few days later in a car through the San Luis Port of Entry and was sent to secondary inspection.
Customs and Border Protection says he became combative, tried to flee back to Mexico and hit his head on the ground after officers shocked him with a stun gun. But his family doesn’t think that’s the whole story.
Gutiérrez said the officers’ statements changed multiple times and it wasn’t consistent with the injuries her husband suffered, including blunt-force trauma on one knee.
Since, Gutiérrez Guzmán has recovered but has seizures, memory loss and problems in one leg, she said. The family has a lawsuit pending.
On Saturday Gutiérrez said she was held for more than 20 minutes while crossing back to Arizona while refusing to answer additional questions after she told officers she was from California, was a U.S. citizen and was in Nogales for an event. She said officers kept staring at her black T-shirt, which had the words “truth, justice and accountability” and “stop Border Patrol brutality” printed on it along with a picture of her husband at the hospital.
The agency has come under increasing scrutiny for the fatalities.
In March, Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher issued a directive clarifying existing guidelines on the use of force. It reminded agents that they should not fire at a vehicle that is fleeing or use their bodies to block its path.
Fisher also repeated that agents should avoid putting themselves in positions where they have no alternative to using deadly force against cross-border rock throwers.
CBP’s use-of-force policy says deadly force may only be used if an agent has a “reasonable belief, based on the totality of the circumstances, that the subject of such force poses an imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to the agent or another person.”
Officials have said it has become a lot more dangerous for Border Patrol agents. In the memo, Fisher said, Border Patrol agents are among the most frequently assaulted law enforcement personnel in the country.
Since 2007, he said, there have been more than 6,000 assaults against agents resulting in numerous injuries and the deaths of three agents. In 2010, agent Brian Terry was killed in a firefight with five bandits who sneaked into the country to rob smugglers.
So far this year, there have been two shootings in the Tucson Sector involving the Border Patrol. One of them was fatal.
On January 16, agents were tracking a group of border crossers at about 8:30 p.m., near Apache, about 30 miles northeast of Douglas. Two people were caught without incident, but a third person ran away.
The man, later identified as Gabriel Sánchez-Velásquez, was found a short time later hiding under a mesquite tree. He began to fight with agent Nathan Wood, the police report said, and tried to take the agent’s gun. Woods fired two shots, one of which hit Sánchez-Velásquez in the head.
Officers found a Mexican driver’s license in the man’s pocket with a different name and an Agua Prieta address. Sánchez-Velásquez’s criminal history, primarily in the Phoenix and Maricopa County area, included false report to law enforcement, DUI and illegal reentry. He had last been deported on Aug. 15, 2013, police records show. The Cochise County Sheriff’s Office investigation is still pending.
And on May 31, a Border Patrol agent fired at a truck striking two Tohono O’odham tribal members after authorities said the driver tried to run the agent over. Two people in the truck were transported to a hospital, but their injuries were not released. The FBI investigation is still ongoing.