Several immigrants crossing the border illegally will not be charged with any crime and a spokesman for the border patrol said the action was justified.
Around 7 a.m. Tuesday morning, a U.S. border patrol agent shot and killed a man near a U.S.-Mexico border crossing, after the man allegedly assaulted the officer by throwing rocks at him.
Local news accounts reported the shooting occurred after two border patrol agents monitoring a mountainous area about four miles east of the Otay Mesa crossing noticed and chased immigrants illegally traversing the border from Mexico.
According to San Diego County Sheriff spokesman Lt. Glenn Giannantonio, the agents alleged they saw two men trying to cut into the U.S. illegally. One of the agents tried to cut off the men as they attempted to cross the border, when the agents spotted a third man trying to cross into the United States. One of the agents reportedly instructed the man in English and Spanish to stop, but he ran away.
One of the agents went after the man as he fled, following him into a 75-foot ravine, before running up a hillside. It was at the top of the hillside that Giannantonio said the agent was pelted with fist-sized rocks by the man.
Though the agent was initially able to deflect some of the rocks, the man began to throw larger-sized rocks, one of which was allegedly the size of a basketball, according to Giannantonio.
One of those larger rocks reportedly hit the agent in the head and he was taken to the hospital to be treated for a minor injury.
“Fearing that another rock strike to the head could kill or incapacitate him, the agent fired his duty pistol at least twice at the man, striking him,” Giannantonio said.
Though the agent said he tried to resuscitate the man, he died at the scene.
The other two men were taken into custody, but Kelly Thornton, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in San Diego, told the AP they would not be charged for entering the U.S. illegally or any other crime.
Assistant Chief Patrol Agent Rosario Vasquez said the area where the incident occurred is known as the “white cross” area and is routinely patrolled since many drug and human trafficking occurs at this port of entry.
“The agents are out there every day trying to protect our borders,” Vasquez said. “It’s unfortunate that a situation like this had to happen. It’s the last thing we want to see.”
This latest incident has sparked a renewed interest in whether the use of force by border patrol agents and officers is too strong, as there have been more than 20 fatal incidents since 2010 by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents and officers.
Nine of those fatalities were related to rock throwing incidents, and includes this latest event.
However the actual numbers may be much higher since an inspector general’s report issued last year found that the agency doesn’t keep track of all use-of-force allegations. Additionally, “many agents and officers” surveyed in an internal 2012 audit didn’t understand when they could or couldn’t use force.
While some police brutality groups have called out the agents for using lethal force against rock throwers for years, this past November, Border Patrol Chief Mike Fisher said the agency had no plans to change its use-of-force policy, and said that the agency considers rocks to be deadly weapons.
Fisher reasoned that making exceptions could prove to be “very problematic and could potentially put Border Patrol agents in danger.”
Shawn Moran, vice president of the national union for Border Patrol agents, supports agents being allowed to shoot rock throwers, and said if someone doesn’t want to get shot they shouldn’t assault a Border Patrol agent.
“When the agent only suffers a minor injury, people may say it’s a disproportionate use of force,” Moran said. “It’s easy to second guess the choice after the fact, but these things happen in split seconds. It’s not part of the job to get injured.”
Mitra Ebadolahi, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial counties, said she doesn’t have enough information to know whether the agent was justified or not, but said the incident has raised the question again whether the border Patrol should respond to rock attacks with lethal force.
“It’s imperative for the agency to behave honestly and transparently,” Ebadolahi told the AP, especially since there are no independent witnesses.
However, Pedro Rios, director of the immigrants rights group American Friends Service Committee in San Diego, said the shooting is an indication the agency is out of control, and urged President Obama to intervene.
“Until then, we will continue to see these type of cases that will be investigated in a non-transparent way, there won’t be proper resolution and they’ll be repeated over and over,” Rios said.