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The U.S. Customs and Border Protection internal affairs department cleared agents of wrongdoing in dozens of lethal force cases, including those which killed children and U.S. citizens. (Photo: shawn alladio/flickr/cc)

Border Patrol Reveals 'Culture of Impunity' as Agents Cleared in Dozens of Killings

Border Patrol internal affairs department absolves agents in 67 lethal force cases

Nadia Prupis

In case after case involving U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) shooting and killing unarmed people, agents were cleared of wrongdoing by the CBP's internal affairs department—including in the killings of children and U.S. citizens.

Investigations into 67 shooting incidents, 19 of which were fatal, absolved agents in all but three cases, which are still pending, the LA Times reported on Monday. Only two agents in total were disciplined—with an oral reprimand, the Times wrote.

Even in cases where evidence of criminal misconduct was presented, agents still went free of charges.

One case was that of a 15-year-old Mexican boy who was shot and killed by border patrol after throwing rocks from a border bridge in El Paso, Texas in 2010.

In another, agents shot to death a 19-year-old American citizen as he attempted to climb a fence into Mexico near Douglas, Arizona.

All agents were cleared of wrongdoing in those cases. Meanwhile, the agents involved in the three shooting incidents currently awaiting investigation are still conducting armed patrols along the border.

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Critics say the findings demonstrate how the CBP, like many federal agencies, operates with near-impunity, even as the Obama administration has promised to crack down on the use of excessive force.

"We are deeply disappointed" with the lack of action, Juanita Molina, executive director of Border Action Network, a human rights organization based in Tucson, told the Times. "When you have someone throwing rocks and someone responding with lethal force, it is just not proportional."

"Turning the page doesn't mean burying the past," said Chris Rickerd, a border security expert at the ACLU. "There is no assurance to border residents that agents who have used excessive, improper lethal force aren't on the job in their communities."

The Times continued:

Unlike domestic police departments, the 21,000-member Border Patrol released almost no public information about shootings, including the outcome of its investigations, until recently. That practice has started to ease slightly as supervisors have been granted more latitude from headquarters to describe individual incidents.

The internal affairs review was started in July after an earlier study of the same 67 shooting cases by an independent group of law enforcement experts found a pattern of agents firing in frustration at people throwing rocks from across the border, as well as agents deliberately stepping in front of cars apparently to justify shooting at the drivers.

The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), which conducted the independent review in May 2014, said the border patrol showed "a lack of diligence" in investigating shooting incidents.

Christian Ramírez, director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition, said at the time that the PERF report should mark "a turning point for the strained relations between Customs and Border Protection and civil society."

In an op-ed for the El Paso Times, the Arizona Republic editorial board excoriated the agency for its culture of secrecy, racial profiling, and human rights abuses at detention centers.

"The Border Patrol is alleged to have committed egregious civil rights abuses. Many people think that doesn't matter because agents deal with people who crossed the border illegally," wrote the editorial board. "But U.S. citizens are waiting for answers about checkpoints in their communities. U.S. citizen children have allegedly been detained in inhuman conditions. U.S. citizens have been killed by border agents. And the U.S. Constitution does not protect only U.S. citizens. The Border Patrol culture of impunity needs to change. The evidence just keeps piling up."

In one of the three cases still awaiting investigation, border patrol agents shot 30-year-old Juan Pablo Perez Santillan as he stood watch for a group of migrants crossing the Rio Grande near Brownsville, Texas in July 2012. Perez Santillan died from his wounds at a hospital.

According to a lawsuit filed by Perez Santillan's family, an agent shot at the man five times, hitting him in the chest. As Perez Santillan's brother Damien pleaded for help, the lawsuit states, another agent shouted back, "Que se muera el perro."

"Let the dog die."


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