A project of the Center for Community Change

Tragedy on the border

By guest blogger, Mary Moreno.

The loss of life is always tragic, though sometimes necessary and unavoidable. The loss of a young life when completely unnecessary and completely avoidable is about as tragic as it gets.

Sergio Adrian Hernandez Güereca, 15, was a high school student in Juarez, the border town directly across the river from El Paso, the youngest child in a family of 5 and a good student. On Monday, Sergio was shot and killed by a U.S. Border Patrol agent who thought it was appropriate to respond to rocks thrown at him by shooting his gun several times at a group of kids where the rocks were coming from. Sergio was shot in the head. The agent was not injured.

According to various news sources Sergio and a group of teens had tried to cross the border at a dry aqueduct adjacent to the international bridge. The teens were spotted by the Border Patrol, which was really inevitable considering the sheer quantity of agents guarding our border. The agents chased the kids and managed to capture two. The others continued running to the Mexican side of the border. From there, they threw rocks at the agents.

According to a witness:

The teens were playing a kind of “cat-and-mouse game,” said Bobbie McDow, 52, a U.S. national who said she witnessed the shooting from the middle of the bridge where she was standing. The teenagers, Ms. McDow said, appeared to be trying to make it to the U.S. side and quickly back to Mexico without being caught by officials, a pattern that Ms. McDow said she has noticed.

One of the youths—not the young Mr. Hernández—had thrown rocks at the border patrol agents, Ms. McDow said, but she stressed that the agent’s “life wasn’t under threat.”

Ms. McDow’s husband, Raul Flores, 52, a Mexican national, also said he witnessed the incident. Mr. Flores said the teenager who was shot had stepped out from behind a pillar on the Mexican side of the border with his hands in the air. The agent and the teenager “had four seconds to look at each other” before the young man was shot, first in the shoulder and then in the head, he said.

The details provided by these witnesses are incredibly disturbing. In what world is ok to respond to a group of teenagers throwing rocks by shooting indiscriminately into that group not knowing who your target is, not knowing if your bullet will strike an innocent?

The most recent update by the Associated Press unveils even more disturbing news:

Hernandez was found 20 feet (six meters) into Mexico, and an autopsy revealed that the fatal shot was fired at a relatively close range, according to Arturo Sandoval, a spokesman for the Chihuahua state attorney general’s office. Mexican authorities said a .40 caliber shell casing was found near the body, suggesting that the Border Patrol agent might have crossed into Mexico to shoot the boy.

In my previous career, I spent 7 years on the cop beat in Texas, including more than two spent on the border where I also covered Border Patrol. One of the most maddening aspects of reporting on any federal agency is the inaccessibility to information. If this had been done by a local police officer, we would by now at least know his name and some of the officer’s history. With Border Patrol, it might be a long while before the details of this death are known.

Nothing about this story makes sense, and everything about it makes me nauseous. Why would a trained officer shoot a gun at a group of people? Why would a trained officer not know how to diffuse rock throwers without resorting to deadly force? The El Paso area is flooded with immigration agents. Why not call for back up?

Even if the worst allegations made against this boy were true – that he was trying to cross illegally, that he threw rocks at the agent – none justify the result.  I would like to know the history of this Border Patrol agent. Is he one of the recent hires, hires made during a historic expansion of Border Patrol? Was he properly vetted and trained? Or was this vetting and training process compromised by the need to rush bodies to the border to quash unfounded fears about border violence?

Recently, I had a conversation with a staffer of a border congressman about the 1,200 National Guard troops President Obama is trying to deploy to the border. This congressman’s office had applauded the move. I asked the staffer why they had approved of it when the border already has some of the lowest crime rates in the country and is saturated with border agents. The staffer said it couldn’t hurt.

This incident shows that it can and will hurt. If Border Patrol agents who are trained to keep a border brimming with civilian and business traffic flowing and safe, what kind of response will we get from soldiers who are trained to kill?

The outrage to this killing is just gaining steam. Amnesty International joined the Mexican government in calling for a quick and transparent investigation:

“This shooting across the border appears to have been a grossly disproportionate response and flies in the face of international standards which compel police to use firearms only as a last resort, in response to an immediate, deadly threat that cannot be contained through lesser means,” said Susan Lee, Americas director at Amnesty International, in a statement Wednesday on the organization’s website.

In El Paso, dozens of residents protested, calling for a complete investigation:

“We want also for Border Patrol to clarify what are the protocols for use of lethal force against immigrants, but more than anything we’re asking for justice and accountability on this incident,” said Fernando Garcia with the Border Network for Human Rights.

Of course, not everyone is concerned about the use of lethal force in response to rock throwing. The National Border Patrol Council under the moniker BPunion tweeted:  “Don’t bring rocks to a gunfight. Border Patrol agents shoot two illegal aliens assaulting them.” The tweet was in response to Saturday’s shooting of two men who were throwing rocks at agents near Tucson. The men were hospitalized with what were described as non-life threatening injuries. The agents were not hurt. (The tweet was pulled down on Tuesday)

Of course the tweeter at the union has a habit of making glib comments about very serious life-and-death incidents. About the man border agents tasered to death, he tweeted: “He had meth in his system and chose to fight an agent. In the BP you don’t get one bean you get the whole burrito!” Wow. Racist much?

Nothing can be done to bring Sergio back, but we should take this opportunity to reexamine how we patrol the border and the use of lethal force. Preventing future deaths would help us heal from this tragedy.

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