Border police must act like police
The murder trial of a Border Patrol agent is not just about a Mexican teen and his grieving family. It’s about whether our muchcelebrated national commitment to human rights is more than skin deep. It’s about demanding accountability from one of the largest federal law-enforcement agencies in the country.
The facts are heartbreaking enough for one family. Five years ago, 16-yearold Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez was shot multiple times by a Border Patrol agent firing across the fence into Mexico.
Agent Lonnie Swartz was charged with second-degree murder, but his longdelayed trial, previously scheduled to begin this month, was put off until March.
On Oct. 10, 2012, Swartz fired 16 shots from Arizona into Nogales, Sonora. The teen was hit 10 times. An autopsy showed several of the bullets hit him in the back when he was on the ground.
Elena Rodriguez was not just an innocent bystander.
The prosecution concedes in court filings that he was one of three people throwing rocks at the agents to distract them from “two subjects on top of the fence who were trying to successfully drop down onto the Mexican side of the border after smuggling two bundles of marijuana into the United States.”
Let’s be clear: Rocks thrown at agents can be dangerous. Agents deserve to protect themselves.
But it is unlikely rocks thrown from the location where this teen was killed would pose much of a threat. On the Mexican side, there is a 25-foot cliff. It is topped by an 18-foot fence. Rocks thrown up at that fence would be a distraction, not a danger.
Nevertheless, the dead teen was not acting like a choir boy. But he was not committing a capital offense, either.
Swartz was not hired to be his judge, jury and executioner.
Swartz’s job that night was law enforcement — a tough job that demands courage as well as restraint.
Swartz deserves to make his defense in court.
But in the interest of justice, Americans have to keep in mind that his behavior is not an isolated incident.
For years, there have been allegations of excessive use of force and other abuses by border agents.
Extensive reporting by The Arizona Republic in 2013 found that Border Patrol agents and Customs Protection officers had killed at least 46 people — including at least 15 Americans — while on duty.
An internal-affairs chief told reporters that he was unaware of any agent being disciplined or terminated in any of those deaths.
A report released in 2013 by the Police Executive Research Forum found evidence of excessive use of force, including allegations that agents intentionally put themselves in front of vehicles that were attempting to flee in order to justify firing at the occupants.
A 2014 report by the American Immigration Council used a Freedom of Information request to obtain U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data and found 809 complaints of abuse filed from January 2009 to January 2012. Among those cases in which a formal decision was reached, 97 percent resulted in “no action taken.”
A 2015 report from the American Civil Liberties Union in Arizona found a “systematic lack of oversight and accountability” for agents’ behavior toward “individuals and families at interior checkpoints” in Arizona.
Under the Obama administration, CBP responded slowly to change the culture of impunity. Criminal charges against Swartz for shooting the Nogales teen marked a move toward accountability.
The Trump administration’s calls for a wall and significant increases in the hiring of border agents focus solely on security. Yet no American is truly secure if agents can ignore human rights.
It’s worth noting that HR 3548, which authorizes up to $10 billion for the border wall, initially included a loophole to exempt CBP from Freedom of Information laws.
Republican Rep. Martha McSally, a co-sponsor of the bill, removed that provision following reporting by tucsonsentinel.com.
She said exempting CBP from public scrutiny was “not the intent,” according to the TucsonSentinel.
Yet the provision was there — and it mirrors a poisonous attitude about the border that is endemic in the Trump administration.
The criminal trial of Lonnie Swartz represents the progress made by the previous administration toward accountability. Americans should demand that progress continue.
Trial delays are heartbreaking for the dead teen’s family; they seek justice and peace of mind.
But this trial has far greater significance for a nation that expects cops of all kinds to show respect for human life and dignity.
This isn’t just about the border. It’s about who we are as a country.
And it isn’t just about the trial of one agent.
It’s about our expectations for law enforcement.
A cross marks the site in Nogales, Sonora, where Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez was shot to death by Border Patrol Agent Lonnie Swartz in October 2012.