Mexico and Rights Groups Decry Violence by US Border Patrol

But pattern of violence may be easing in response to new awareness

NURSING a swollen black eye, Ramon Osorio Gomez claims he was kicked unconscious May 15 by a United States Border Patrol agent.

"I was going home to visit my family in Tijuana on Friday after work. The Border Patrol drove up, the officer jumped out and kicked me over, then kicked me in the head," Mr. Osorio says. A Mexican citizen, he became a legal permanent US resident six months ago.

Later, upon examining his documents, Osorio says, the Border Patrol officer said he was free to go home. A butcher working in San Diego, Osorio insisted on filing a complaint. He was held for five hours before being let go. No medical attention was given.

"This case is unusual in that it was a legal US resident. But it's not unusual for us to see Mexican nationals reporting physical abuse," says Pablo de la Lama of the Mexican Consulate in San Diego.

Indeed, a pattern of violent attacks against Mexican legal and illegal migrants has prompted the Mexican government to make this a touchstone issue in US-Mexico relations over the past two years.

An Americas Watch report entitled "Brutality Unchecked," released May 31, calls the human rights abuses by the Border Patrol in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas "appalling." "Beatings, rough physical treatment, racially motivated verbal abuse are routine. More serious abuses including unjustified shootings, torture, and sexual abuse occur."

The report notes the abuses are "similar in kind and severity to those about which we have reported in many other countries. Moreover, the response of the US government is as defensive and as unyielding as the responses of many of the most abusive governments."

"Border violence is a central problem in our relationship," says Mexico City-based Eduardo Ibarrola, director of Mexico's consular affairs. "The Mexican immigrant isn't a criminal. He's there to work and that brings benefits to both countries."

Some Mexican analysts see the concern now as simply part of an effort by the government of Carlos Salinas de Gortari to polish Mexico's image in the US in order to bolster chances for a free-trade agreement. Others laud the attention finally directed at this problem.

Mexico's Ministry of Foreign Affairs records 117 cases of human rights abuses by US officials against migrants from 1988 to 1990, including 14 deaths. Data collected by the US-Mexico Border Program of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker human rights group, shows that since 1980, Border Patrol agents have shot dozens of people, killing 11 and permanently disabling 10. A Border Patrol-San Diego police task force operating between 1984 and 1989 killed 19 people and wounded 24.

Last week, before the Americas Watch report came out, Mexican and US officials met in Washington and agreed to "establish a permanent bilateral mechanism" to review cases of abuse, "promote a climate of better security and protection" for citizens of both countries, and establish courses for law enforcement agencies "putting emphasis on the delicate nature of their activities."

Mexican officials acknowledge the tide may be turning on the most serious rights abuses. The only reported death in 1992 has been the killing of a Mexican drug smuggler in a shootout.

"The numbers are a little lower over the past year. This may reflect a change in attitude by the Border Patrol," Mr. Ibarrola says.

San Diego Border Patrol spokesman Steven Kean says the problem is "not nearly as severe as depicted."

Last year, out of half a million apprehensions in the San Diego area, Mr. Kean says only 14 cases of abuse warranted further investigation by the US Office of Inspector General (OIG). "That's better than the record of major US city police departments," he says.

Officials at the Mexican consulate here say they have filed at least 10 serious complaints this year with the OIG, including the Osorio case. But they say OIG rarely finds the cases "warrant further investigation." Undocumented workers are difficult to find for questioning later because they have no fixed addresses and fear being deported.

Disciplinary action has been taken in some cases. But Americas Watch contends the Border Patrol acts almost with impunity.

"Most outrageous is the Immigration and Naturalization Service's willingness to cover up or defend almost any form of egregious conduct by its agents."

Kean says there are two sides to every incident. In combatting drug smugglers and rock throwers, "sometimes we're forced to defend ourselves," he says.

There were 217 reports of assaults against border agents in 1990, and 132 in 1991, Kean says.

On May 22, a San Diego Blue Ribbon Task Force on Violence released reports on hate crimes and border violence. Recommendations included a call for better pay and training of Border Patrol agents and the creation of an independent civilian review board to monitor the Patrol's activities.

"There's plenty of oversight now," Kean counters. "There's the OIG, the FBI, the civil rights division of the Justice Department, local police agencies, and the US district attorney's office. Adding another level on top of that would serve no purpose."

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