Border Patrol Shooting Death Of Immigrant Woman Raises Tensions In South Texas

May 25, 2018
Originally published on May 25, 2018 6:23 pm

The shooting death of an undocumented woman at the hands of a U.S. Border Patrol agent in Rio Bravo, Texas, near Laredo, Wednesday is ratcheting up tensions along the U.S.-Mexico border.

According to a statement released by Customs and Border Protection, a lone agent was responding "to a report of illegal activity by Centeno Lane ... where he discovered a group of illegal aliens" just after noon.

The statement adds:

"Initial reports indicate that as the agent attempted to apprehend the group, he came under attack by multiple subjects using blunt objects. The agent fired at least one round from his service issued firearm, fatally wounding one of the assailants. The rest of the group fled the scene. Border Patrol Agents called for EMS and administered first aid until the Rio Bravo Fire Department arrived."

Three other migrants were subsequently apprehended. Neither the agent nor the deceased woman, who was shot in the head, have been identified.

The incident is being investigated by the FBI and the Texas Rangers.

A female witness who lives next door to the site of the shooting, Marta Martinez, recorded the aftermath of the killing and posted it on Facebook.

In the video, Martinez follows from a distance as an agent takes two detained men across a vacant lot and toward a Border Patrol vehicle.

"Why do you mistreat them?" Martinez shouts in Spanish. "Why did you shoot the girl? You killed her! They killed the girl! She's dead!"

An unidentified Texas Highway Patrol officer approaches and tells Martinez that "you interfere, you're going to be arrested. I'm just telling you."

Martinez told The New York Times that she heard no sounds before the shooting, despite the incident's having occurred several feet away from her house. The victim appeared to be about 20 years old and the left side of her face was covered in blood, she added.

The incident comes as the Trump administration has called for heightened border security and deployed the National Guard to help border agents stop illegal entries. Trump also has called for 5,000 more border agents.

Local immigrant advocates are questioning the need for further militarization of the border.

"We don't need any more protection. We're safe," said the founder of Laredo Immigrant Alliance, Karina Alvarez.

She said her community is upset and angry over the shooting, and people worry whether the investigation will resolve anything.

"Our community really is in fear, we really think there should be accountability over Border Patrol agents," she said.

In 2016, the Homeland Security Advisory Council looked into reports that border agents were not being held accountable for a rash of deadly shootings. The panel concluded that the "disciplinary process takes far too long to be an effective deterrent."

Since then, Customs and Border Protection — the parent agency — has stressed training agents in use of nonlethal force and de-escalation techniques. Figures on the agency website show that "use of force involving firearms" dropped nearly 70 percent from 2012 to 2017. But it's coming back. Agents used their guns nine times from October to March of this year, more than twice as many as the previous year.

Administration officials say that's because assaults on border agents have spiked. But critics say the agency is playing with the numbers. In one incident in the Rio Grande Valley last year, first reported by the Intercept, six people threw rocks, bottles and branches at seven Border Patrol agents. By the Border Patrol's tally, that added up to 126 separate assaults.

When asked if the agency's math exaggerates the dangers out there, Cary Huffman, CBP's chief of strategic planning, put it this way:

"If you had to dodge 126 different projectiles at you, you might think differently, would you not?"

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The FBI and Texas Rangers are investigating a shooting in South Texas. On Wednesday, a Border Patrol agent shot and killed a woman after she and a group of unauthorized immigrants attacked the agents with what were described as blunt objects. This has further inflamed the tensions along the heavily patrolled Rio Grande. NPR's John Burnett has this story.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The Border Patrol says the agent was alone trying to apprehend six undocumented immigrants midday Wednesday in the town of Rio Bravo near Laredo, Texas. The agency says when the officer came under attack, he fired at least one round from his service weapon and struck the woman in the head. Other agents arrived and performed emergency first aid on her, but she died at the scene. Three of the immigrants were arrested. Two fled across the river back to Mexico. A neighbor shot this video of the aftermath of the shooting and posted it online. You can hear her asking the officers why they killed the woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: Hector Garza is a spokesman for the Border Patrol union in the Laredo sector. It includes Rio Bravo, a sliver of a town whose main street halts at the bank of the sluggish Rio Grande.

HECTOR GARZA: This part of the border is very active for human and drug smuggling activities. And an agent that's working in that area can very routinely see anywhere from 30 to 50 illegal aliens attempting to make entry during a single shift.

BURNETT: Immigrant advocates along the southern divide say that with President Trump's intense focus on border security federal immigration agents have gotten more aggressive. Then last month, the president announced he was deploying the National Guard to the border to help agents stop illegal entries. The fatal shooting of an immigrant woman is upsetting local residents who question whether the area should be further militarized.

KARINA ALVAREZ: We don't need any more protection. We're safe.

BURNETT: Karina Alvarez is founder of the Laredo Immigrant Alliance. She says her community worries whether the investigation will be objective.

ALVAREZ: Our community really is in fear. We really think that there should be accountability over this Border Patrol agent.

BURNETT: This has been an issue before. Concerned over a rash of deadly shootings by its agents, Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, initiated training that stress the use of nonlethal force. The agency says shooting incidents dropped nearly 70 percent from 2012 to 2017. But in the first six months of this fiscal year, agents used their guns nine times - more than twice as much - as at the same period a year earlier.

Administration officials say that's because assaults on agents have spiked. Yet critics say the agency is playing with the numbers. In one incident in the Rio Grande Valley last year, six people threw rocks bottles and branches at seven agents. By the Border Patrol's tally, that added up to 126 separate assaults. The Intercept website accused the agency of exaggerating the dangers out there. When asked about that, Carry Huffman, chief of strategic planning at CBP, put it this way.

CARRY HUFFMAN: If you had to dodge 126 different projectiles at you, you might think differently. Would you not?

BURNETT: The agent who was involved in the Rio Bravo shooting, who was not identified, has been put on administrative leave during the investigation.

John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.