Shooting case has border agents on edge
Morale slides, says union, in wake of prison time for two agents who used deadly force.
The US border agent stands tense, gun drawn, while an illegal border-crosser from Mexico curses at him in Spanish and reaches into her purse.Skip to next paragraph
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"Don't move!" shouts the agent, but the woman keeps digging through the purse, suddenly brandishing ... (bang!) ... a long knife.
The agent's shot is high and to the left, appearing as a blue dot on the projection screen. The simulated encounter is over, and Ricardo Gonzalez wipes sweat from his forehead. "I did not want to underestimate her," the trainee tells the superviser administering the test.
At the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Artesia, N.M., 200 miles from the border with Mexico, newly minted border patrol agents take their final exam on the use of lethal force. It's a part of border security that has lately been a bone of contention between agents in the field and top managers, especially now that border violence is on the rise and US agents are at greater risk of coming under attack.
"A lot of agents on the border right now feel a heightened sense of anxiety because of the increase in violence," says David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. They "are encountering heavily armed and very dangerous criminals. and they may be a little more trigger-happy."
At the center of the storm over use of force are two border patrol agents in west Texas who, in January, began serving prison time for shooting and wounding a drug smuggler as he fled toward Mexico and then covering up evidence. Their case has become a cause célèbre for ardent proponents of a border crackdown, conservative bloggers, and some lawmakers in Congress – there was even a petition to the White House to prevent the agents' incarceration.
But for field agents, the case goes deeper, chilling both their willingness to use deadly force and their morale, says T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents 11,000 nonsupervisory personnel at the agency. A more recent case of a border patrol agent in Arizona, charged in April with the first-degree murder of a Mexican national, has the potential to intensify agents' misgivings, he says.
The union leader, an agent based in San Diego, explained in a recent phone interview the rank-and-file's main concern: " 'If I fire at this guy, am I going to have the backing of the guys above me?' That split second can mean the difference between life and death."
Agents are now more likely to avoid situations in which they might have to use deadly force, adds Mr. Bonner. "There's a very real fear about going the extra mile. That's a clear sentiment."
Agents' discontent coincides with agency efforts to add 6,000 personnel to the border patrol – and also with a spike in assaults on agents along parts of the border.
Nationwide, attacks on agents since October rose 3 percent over the same period a year earlier. But in the Yuma sector in western Arizona, a hotbed of smuggling activity, they've jumped 56 percent. Officials say the new level of violence is proof that the border patrol's beefed-up presence – a pillar of the Bush administration's plan to secure the border – is making smugglers more desperate.
In this context, Bonner says, morale among field agents has been deteriorating – and that the case of the jailed agents, José Compean and Ignacio Ramos, is a "big factor." In February – after the two began serving 12- and 11-year sentences, respectively – the union leadership unanimously voted "no confidence" in border patrol chief David Aguilar, the first such resolution in the union's 42-year history. In listing its grievances, the union cited the Ramos and Compean case, faulting the agency and government for "believing the perjured allegations of criminals over the sworn testimony of innocent border patrol agents." The union's position is that the agents were guilty of "administrative missteps," not a crime.