Jun 15, 2010
At dusk on June 7, Bobbie McDow and her husband were heading south across the busy Paso Del Norte foot-bridge, which connects El Paso, Texas, to Juarez, Mexico. In the sweltering heat, McDow asked her husband if they could pause for a moment so she could catch her breath.
That brief pause made McDow one of many eyewitnesses to the killing of a 14-year-old junior high school student from Juarez, named Sergio Adrian Hernandez Huereka. He was gunned down by a U.S. Border Patrol agent who fired his weapon from the El Paso side and hit the boy on the Mexican side.
But what happened next added to McDow's shock. After the shooting, McDow called 911 to give her account of what she had seen to the El Paso police, when Border Patrol and private security agents arrived and "aggressively" dispersed "dozens of people" who were still on the bridge, possible eyewitnesses to the shooting. Names and statements were not taken, she said.
"I was standing there after I realized someone was dead," McDow said in an interview on Monday, "and I was telling my husband that we have to do something, and I'm thinking 'well, that's law enforcement. Who do we call?' But I decided I'd call 911, the El Paso Police Department. ...
"While I was calling the El Paso Police Department, the security guards on the bridge -- there's a private security company that's hired by Federal Protective Services -- one of the guards came up to me and started screaming in my face to get off the bridge, and there were a lot of people on the bridge at that point -- a lot of Mexican people returning back to Mexico.
"Most of them left, and I told the officer I wasn't leaving, that I had to report the incident, that it is very serious, and I had to report this. I was on the phone with 911 for about six minutes, and the security guard kept trying to intimidate me to get off of the bridge and go into Mexico.
"Eventually I think he realized that the call was being recorded, because it's 911. A few minutes later, the Custom and Border Patrol agents came up, about 20 of them, and surrounded me and told me to get off the bridge, and I said 'I'm making this 911 call, and after I finish with it I'm going to decide whether I'm going back to Mexico or going back into Texas, to the United States.'
"But I really felt that there was an effort on their part to make sure that everybody that was witnessing the event was dispersed off the bridge."
Against the officers' orders, McDow persisted with her call, and told the agents exactly what she was doing. "Now, no one took my phone away from me, but the first officer was really loud, and finally, like I said he realized that 911 calls are taped, so he decided to contain himself."
The killing of Sergio Adrian Hernandez Huereka has turned into an international incident, with Mexican prosecutors claiming jurisdiction, and Mexican lawmakers calling for the U.S. agent's extradition to Mexico for prosecution. Mexican prosecutors have ruled the border killing to be an intentional homicide and maintain that charges should be filed against the perpetrator, on Mexican soil, where the boy was killed.
In the United States, the FBI has opened a major civil rights investigation to ascertain whether the agent violated the teen's civil rights, by killing without cause. Such an investigation could lead to an indictment on homicide charges.
Initially, the U.S. Border Patrol and the FBI claimed the agent had been defending himself from a surrounding crowd of rock-throwing undocumented Mexicans trying to cross the border. That story was followed by the demonization of Hernandez Huereka as a serial teen smuggler.
Much of the U.S. corporate news coverage focused on these talking points, which were encouraged by a government leak claiming that the slain teen was on the Border Patrol's "most wanted list" of teen smugglers.
But the story of the menacing teen didn't hold for long after a cell phone video showed that the agent was facing no apparent danger and instead was discharging his pistol in an apparently reckless and random fashion.
The cell phone footage and still photos of the scene show something else: many people looking down from the foot bridge onto the scene, meaning that eyewitnesses could have described the incident from a variety of angles.
However, because the witnesses were dispersed rather than debriefed, Bobbie McDow is one of the few who has come forward and been identified.
On Monday, McDow , a 53-year-old with a paralegal degree who has returned to college for more studies, gave us her account.
"I was headed into Mexico," McDow said, "I was walking up the Santa Fe International Bridge, and I had stopped at the top of the bridge because it was quite hot. My husband was waiting for me, and I said 'let's rest here for a second.'
"When I was there, looking towards the west, I looked down, and there was a group of teenagers below me. They were on the cement apron of the Rio Grande River, and I said to my husband 'let's watch them,' because I knew that they were getting ready to cross over. ...
"One of them was apprehended by the Border Patrol on the gravel road right next to the river. ... And then I saw one of the Border Patrol agents on a bicycle riding from the west, riding east, and he was by himself. At that point he apprehended one of the young men coming down from the fence and the rest of them appeared to go into the riverbed."
To McDow's shock, the agent trained his gun on the fleeing teens who were retreating back toward the Mexican side and -- in her opinion -- presented no threat to anyone. She continued:
"He grabbed a hold of the one young man at the same time that he had his weapon drawn. It seemed like he had his hands full. He had a person in his left hand who was not actually handcuffed, and he had his weapon in his right hand, and I thought that it was very dicey that he had both of those things going on at the same time. I thought it could go bad. ...
"When he started firing his weapon towards Mexico I became really, really concerned. And I was still watching him trying to contain the person in his other hand, and he's firing. Then the firing stopped. I think there was four or five shots, but I don't know for sure -- there was a lot of echoing because of the cement around the bridge.
"After the firing stopped, I looked to the left and I saw that there was a body lying there, and then I became really upset that actually there was someone. And the body wasn't moving."
It was at that point when McDow tried to make her 911 call.
McDow is positive that the young men were moving out of U.S. territory and into Mexico at the time of the shooting, though the precise location of the border in the Rio Grande can be unclear.
"You have to understand; once you're down at the riverbed," she said, "everything is just within feet. There's an imaginary line that goes down the middle of the river, and that's the boundary between the United States and Mexico.
"Where he [the agent] was, on the cement when he was firing, was probably 20 feet at the most from the international boundary of Mexico. So yes, he was clearly firing into Mexico."
Days after the shooting, McDow gave a detailed statement to the FBI, but she was troubled that the agents were still repeating the initial claims of the Border Patrol, that the agent was surrounded by stone-throwing teenage smugglers.
"I wasn't sure how they could make a positive identification of someone who died on the other side of the border, but I did feel like they were trying to disparage the victim, and I find that concerning," she said.
The surfacing of the cell phone video heartened McDow because, she said, without it an internal U.S. investigation could have erased her testimony, especially since so many other potential eyewitnesses had been scattered off the bridge.
"I'm so grateful that someone had the mind to go ahead and take that video," she said. "I'm all for knowing exactly what happened. ... I would like to know if there are any other videos so we can get a clearer perspective.
"Unfortunately the cell phone video isn't quite clear about the persons that were south of the border, and what was going on there. I would absolutely like to know what was happening. I would like to know everything."
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