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Behind the Story: Questionable border patrol shootings

In December, Tim Steller, a reporter and now columnist for the Arizona Daily Star, reported on the increasing number of shootings occurring between Border Patrol and illegal immigrants along the U.S.-Mexico border.  The victims in some cases appear to have been unarmed.  This fact and the lack of transparency in the investigations has cast doubt on the nature of the shootings, especially for victims’ families.  Steller’s investigation shows that in some incidents, the families’ concerns might be justified.

How did you get the idea to report on shootings by Border Patrol agents?
On Oct. 10, there was a shooting in which an agent fired across the border into downtown Nogales, Sonora and killed a 16-year-old named José Antonio Elena Rodríguez. The agency said the agent fired in response to rock throwing from the Mexican side during an illegal border-crossing at the fence.

Behind The Story
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I didn't think much of the incident that day because there have been so many shootings over the years. But it was interesting in that the agent shot across the border in the central part of the cities. That was unusual.

There was quite a bit of protest in Mexico about the shooting, so I went to Nogales, Sonora a couple of days later and was immediately struck by the physical setting of the shooting. The agent clearly fired from atop a hill on the U.S. side, through the tall border fence, down across a street into Mexico. It looked unlikely from that setting that anyone could have threatened that agent with rocks, because it would have taken a monstrous throw just to get the rock over the fence.

How were you able to obtain information about each of the shootings?
We had information about most of the shootings in our archives, though in most cases the information was not detailed. The ACLU's Regional Center for Border Rights in New Mexico had put together a list of shootings by Border Patrol agents, so I cross-referenced that list with our own records from archives.

After putting together a spreadsheet of the shootings, I went to the agencies involved in the investigations and asked about them. In most cases, the responding agency was the FBI, and they had nothing to say because the investigations were considered "ongoing" or "pending."

In a couple of cases, local agencies had conducted investigations and were more responsive in providing information. Also, there are civil suits filed or pending in several cases, and those files and attorneys were helpful.

What other documents were crucial to this story, and how did you obtain them?
The Cochise County Sheriff's Department was responsive in providing records on two shootings by Border Patrol agents in that county.  The Nogales, Ariz.  Police Department provided its written reports and audio files as well. I was also able to get the Mexican police reports on the Oct. 10 shooting through an attorney.  Then there were the case files from the civil suits against the Border Patrol, such as the one filed in the Hernández-Guereca case in El Paso.

What were some setbacks you faced while investigating? How did you work around them?
The Border Patrol and Department of Homeland Security were almost completely unresponsive. I asked for interviews with everyone from Sec. Napolitano on down and gave them weeks to respond, but I was rejected. Then, on the Friday before the story ran on Sunday, a regional spokesman for the Border Patrol did an interview but had almost no answers to questions I had been giving them for weeks.

To get around that, I consulted the Border Patrol agents' union and their lawyer, as well as the scant documents the Border Patrol had provided in the individual cases. They at least gave me a feeling for the agents' perspectives in these situations.

How did you find the subjects in your story, and decide which ones made it into the final article?
I naturally used the most recent cases in Arizona and Sonora, the Mexican state to our south. I spoke with Elena Rodríguez's family at their home, which is just three blocks south of that shooting scene in Nogales, Sonora. And I used police reports and our archives to discuss the shooting of Nicholas Ivie, a friendly-fire case that happened on Oct. 2, just a week before the shooting that prompted the story.

I also used another example for which I had good documentation -- the March 2011 shooting of Carlos La Madrid in Douglas, Arizona. That's an interesting case because it appears La Madrid had been committing a crime before he was killed (smuggling marijuana), but there's still a question as to whether he was righteously killed. He was climbing a ladder up the border fence on the U.S. side when an agent shot at rock throwers but killed him.

How did you get sources to speak openly with you?
Critics of the Border Patrol and those connected to the victims of these shootings had a natural interest in talking about the cases. They think there's a pattern of misconduct by agents that needs to be exposed.

I appealed to the Border Patrol and Department of Homeland Security with very direct explanations of what I was working on and why I thought they owed it to the public to respond. That is, I told them that their unwillingness to speak reflected a lack of accountability similar to the one I was writing about  in the story. That didn't work.

The FBI was responsive in providing information on their procedures and their perceptions of the cases, though they provided little or no information on individual cases.

Outside experts had a natural interest in the situation and the questions of use-of-force.

I also had a few off-the-record conversations that were helpful.

What was the most interesting part of the reporting process?
I always like working along the border in the U.S. and Mexico, searching for the sources that will unlock the story I'm working on. So, walking those streets and visiting those offices, especially on the Mexican side, was enjoyable as always. However, I can't say I found the single "smoking gun" in those places.

What were the most interesting things you found that didn’t make it into the final article?
There has been significant research on alleged abuses by Border Patrol agents in their detention facilities. These are categorically different from the shootings I was investigating, but they appear to reflect the same lack of accountability — or at least lack of transparency — that I was writing about.

Also, there's an interesting legal issue being litigated in Texas. That is, can a Mexican citizen sue the U.S. Government when a Border Patrol agent shoots their Mexican relative in Mexico? There have been an increasing number of cross-border shootings by agents, so this precedent will be important.

After this experience, what advice can you offer fellow investigative reporters interested in reporting on Border Patrol or immigration issues?

  • Get to the site of the incident or phenomenon you're looking at in order to grasp it better.
  • Give the Border Patrol time to respond, but don't let them delay the story because they may never give you an answer.
  • Find union officials or retired agents who can give you their perspective on the story without fear of reprisal from the agency.

What do you hope will happen as a result of your reporting?
I would love for there to be improved transparency in the investigations of agent-involved shootings. The Border Patrol obviously answers to the hierarchy in Washington D.C., but for there to be trust of the agency in the communities where they work, there must be transparency in their operations.

Tim Steller can be reached via email at steller@azstarnet.com or via Twitter @senyorreporter.

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