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We look at the collaborative investigation that looks at civilian deaths involving Border Patrol agents. Deadly Patrols is a two part series that airs on KPBS Midday and Evening Edition, and

July 18, 2012 1:19 p.m.


Roxana Popescu, Reporter, Investigative Newsource

Christian Ramirez, Human Rights Director, Equality Alliance San Diego

Related Story: Mexican Migrant Seeks Retribution Against U.S. For Shooting


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. It's Wednesday, July 18th. Our top story on Midday Edition, even though US Border Patrol arrests of people illegally entering Mexico have dropped to a 40 year low, are the number of people killed by Border Patrol agents has increased. What's causing these fatal interactions between immigrants and border agents? The series is called Deadly Patrol, and my guests, Roxana Popescu is reporter with Investigative News Source.

POPESCU: Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: And Christian Ramirez, director with the equality alliance in San Diego.

RAMIREZ: A pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: From what I understand, this series was prompted by the disturbing story of Anastacio Rojas, a man who died in Border Patrol custody.

POPESCU: Anastacio was trying to cross into the U.S. in 2010 when Border Patrol agents intercepted him, then they started beating him and tasing him. And since then his family has filed lawsuit, and U.S. lawmakers have also called for an inquiry into his death.

CAVANAUGH: What you just referred to there is criminal charges. That just came down this week, right?

POPESCU: That's right. Last week, a grand jury was convened to determine what happened. Now it's proceeding through the Court.

CAVANAUGH: We did a practical on this incident, and it was a PBS special as well to show -- and it was terrible. We heard the man crying out to please stop. What was the Border Patrol -- have they ever said anything about this case?

POPESCU: Well, after we aired the need to know -- excuse me, we didn't air it, but after PBS aired the documentary, we uncovered more video.

CAVANAUGH: What did you want to find out about this investigation? You were looking for similar cases to Hernandez Rojas, or people who found themselves in similar situations of having grave badly injury done to them while in Border Patrol custody.

POPESCU: Right. Well, what we looked at for the past couple months was trying to determine situations where Border Patrol ended up using excessive force against people that they're encountering. Some of them were illegal immigrants, some of them trying to cross into the country, and were U.S. citizens, and the situations vary widely. But they all ended with a lost life. And we noticed an increasing trend in the number of fatalities. This is according to customs and border protection statistics in 2008, there was one death, in 2009, there were two deaths. In 2010 and 2011, there were five deaths. And so far this fiscal year, that's starting last October through 2012, there have been four deaths. So that's an upward trend, and that was one of the findings of our investigation.

CAVANAUGH: Who are you working with? What agencies, investigative agencies are you working with to compile this data?

POPESCU: We've been working with here in San Diego, Investigative News Source, a partner of KPBS, and in Texas, the Texas observer, the nation constitute, and PPBS was going to be be putting out a second documentary airing this Friday.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you travelled to Arizona and Mexico and you met a man who claims a border agent used unnecessary force against him. Can you tell us his story?

POPESCU: Yeah, this was a man called Jesus, he lives in Nogalez, Mexico, and he had been shot by a border agent. He was trying to cross into the U.S. he repeatedly had been entering the U.S. to find work and then going back to Mexico to live with his family. And on one such occasion, he and his group of travelers or the people who were traveling with him were caught by this agent. And the agent followed him, they all ran away, and the agent focused on him. They got into a conversation, some language, some insults, and then the agent shot Castro in the stomach/back.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you heard from this Castro?

POPESCU: Yeah, I went to Mexico and interviewed him and his lawyer. I tried to speak with the agent, and his lawyer, and the lawyer for the government, and they declined to participate in the conversation. Hopefully in the future I'd love to get both sides.

CAVANAUGH: This man did not die. But I guess the contention is he was lucky not to die in this confrontation; is that right?

POPESCU: Yeah, he was saying thank God I'm here, I'm fine, thank God. He ended up -- now the plot twists that he's suing the U.S. government for the agent's actions, for claims on specified damages. And that's obviously a controversial move. Comments on the piece that ran this morning have been saying he had it coming, he's breaking the law. But let others take note, don't try to enter our country. But yeah.

CAVANAUGH: What does his lawyer say? I believe if I remember correctly, his lawyer said something along the line of it was unusual and brave of him to pursue this case?

POPESCU: Yeah, well, he said in this -- we spoke in Mexico, and he was saying that it's just disturbing that we need to go through this system, the civil system, that there should be more accountability, that it's complicated if the agents are behaving this way, if there's no other controls but civil suits.

CAVANAUGH: We have something from Mr. Castro's lawyer, and here it is.

NEW SPEAKER: At that point, they were, should we say, guilty of misdemeanors? That's the crime. And the Border Patrol agent ends up knocking this guy to the ground and ends up shooting him.

CAVANAUGH: And that's the lawyer basically addressing that idea of the two comparable crimes, entering the country illegally as opposed to, if it is a crime, using deadly force in this particular instance. KPBS did speak to the national organization representing Border Patrol agents. Unfortunately they were not able to join us or give us a statement in response for the show today. One of the things that the Border Patrol says they're up against, and they are up against, is this thing known as rocking that they get from people who are trying to enter the country illegally. What is rocking?

POPESCU: Rocking is a rock assault, when somebody picks up a rock and throws it or threatens to throw it at somebody else. This is a common claim in the desert. So the Border Patrol agents are up against a lot of unknowns. There are situation where is they don't know who they're going to encounter. It could be a docile illegal immigrant, it could be the most dangerous drug dealer or human smugglers, it could be people who have a lot to lose who are willing to fight, and it could be people who would peacefully comply and go into detention. So rockings are these assaults that agents are said to be up against. And CBP statistics show that rockings were rising steadily for several years, then they had fallen off. In 2006 there are more than 400. In 2010, there were almost 800. And so far this year, there have been less than 200. So that's an interesting wave, which we're trying to understand. This is from very fresh statistics. We spoke with somebody yesterday from customs and border protection for the most recent numbers.

CAVANAUGH: That's interesting because when someone is confronted with a rock and maybe answers with a bullet, it doesn't seem right, and perhaps it isn't, but one of the agents that you spoke to said we don't understand what that's like until you're in the middle of it.

POPESCU: Absolutely. So this is -- these border agents are allowed to use guns to defend themselves, and that's perfectly reasonable. And we're not questioning self-defense law, we're not questioning the right of an agent or any individual to protect himself. I think what we're trying to look at and what we discovered in this investigation is that there are some situations where the story is not clean cut or clear. So there's maybe -- there is evidence and it's contradicting, and so that's what we're trying to shed light on.

CAVANAUGH: Christian Ramirez, what does your organization, equality alliance, monitor in regards to these border assaults and deaths?

RAMIREZ: Well, the equality alliance is part of the southern border communities coalition, which brings together 60 communities to monitor the activities of law enforcement, federal law enforcement, and to track the impact that heavy presence of federal law enforcement has on border communities. Not only the impact of the rights of the undocumented migrants but also on residents and U.S. citizens. The fact of the matter is that the heavy presence of Border Patrol agents along the southern border has a very negative impact on border resident, and we're trying to address issues of accountability, policy change, and oversight of this agency.

CAVANAUGH: What kind of negative effect does it have on residents?

RAMIREZ: We have a situation in which in Arizona, a 19-year-old U.S.-born kid was shot in the back three times by a Border Patrol agent. The minor or the 19-year-old was charged with transporting drugs. His name was Carlos la Madrid. We have a situation in which that's happening, U.S. citizens are being killed by agent, and there's no accountability, no oversight, no investigation that takes place into the abuses. That's just the tip of the iceberg. We have Czech points all along the southern border, where people of Latino decent are abused by border agents. The fact is that this agency is out of control, it has no real oversight over it, and the time has come for that oversight and accountability to be implemented in order for this agency to be held accountable.

CAVANAUGH: The executive director of equality alliance is in Washington today meeting with members of Congress.

RAMIREZ: Well, we've spoken to White House shall ifs repeatedly on the need for oversight. Now it's up to Congress to make sure that border protection is held accountable, that there are oversight hearings over this agent, and that Congress who gives the money for CV P to operate takes into account the fact that this agency has come under huge scrutiny by cases of corruption and abuse that have gone unanswered. No other law enforcement agency in this country can get away with shooting 14 men and boys in three years without responding to anyone. And that's exactly what the Border Patrol has the authority to do.

CAVANAUGH: The issue of accountability is something that you ran into too, in speaking with an attorney, I believe his name is Ed Rheinheimer. He's in Arizona, brought some cases or tried to against Border Patrol agent, and he expressed a great deal of frustration.

POPESCU: He said that there's -- somebody trying to prosecute a Border Patrol agent, and more generally law enforcement, but specifically border agent, is going to be up against from pressure from both sides. The public, the jury, this is a common issue, most of them are saying these people need to go back. You just can't write Border Patrol and shooting without getting certain set reactions from people. So it's a very sensitive, delicate issue. Then from the top down, from the Department of Justice he says he was pressured not to try the case. Nicholas Corbitt in 2007, the county attorney believed there was sufficient evidence for a murder trial, and both from the jury side, two mistrial, and from the Department of Justice, there was displeasure. It was a very unpopular choice of his to try to bring this to the Court.

CAVANAUGH: Now you spoke with a Border Patrol union president name would George McCubbin III, and his comments are included in your report. And he addressed the fatalities increasing in the encounters with illegal immigrants. And he said he thinks that some changes may need to be made.

NEW SPEAKER: Employees are being put in positions where this is going to be semi-normal action. And we need to rethink as an agency how we're doing business out there.

CAVANAUGH: And so that was George McCubbin the third, president of the Border Patrol union. Christian, some -- as Roxana was just saying, some illegal immigration activists -- and actually, there's a strata of people in this country who basically say, look, if you cross the border illegally, you get what's coming to you. You know that there's Border Patrol agents over here, you know they carry weapons, you know if you don't stop when they tell you to stop, if you don't do what they tell you to do, you may end up dead. So what is your response to that?

RAMIREZ: Well, we're a country that values due process. We're a country that values the rights of individuals, no matter what their legal status is. We value our constitution, our constitution protects everyone in this country regardless of their legal status. And the fact is that folks who are coming across this border are being abused. We have reports of sexual assault, we have reports of torture, we have reports of people being denied medical service, water, food, and folks who are being shot and killed. That sort of behavior should not be allowed in our country. If we don't tolerate this sort of behavior abroad, where are we allowing this sort of behavior to occur on U.S. soil? The fact is that the Border Patrol should not be above the law. It's a public agency. It needs to be held accountable, and it's up to lawmakers to make sure that the strategy on law enforcement along the U.S. Mexico border is reviewed, and that we look into what's really happening inside of CVP, so we are able to uphold our constitution along the U.S./Mexico border.

CAVANAUGH: There's a big web component of your series, Roxana. Who can people see in

POPESCU: We have a lot of information have several sources. Basically it's a collaboration, we all got together and did profiles of the people who died. And we were careful to show the complexity there. So some of them are alleged drug traffickers, some were crossing for other reasons, some were not crossing there. And the U.S. or Mexico, some were shot while in Mexico. So we just show links to media reports, a little profile, the basic fact, and then over time perhaps that will grow with more information. If people have information, we'd encourage them to get in touch with us.