The Night In Question

Who killed Border Patrol agent Jose Gamez Jr. and dumped his body in an irrigation canal thirty years ago? His partner would still like to know. And so would the people who think his partner could have been involved.
Out of the Past: The check gate where Lugo says he and Gamez ambushed the immigrants.
Photograph by Jesse Bogan

On April 21, 1978, Border Patrol agents Frank Lugo and Jose Gamez Jr. drove their truck down a ranch road outside Eagle Pass and settled into their evening shift along the Rio Grande. They planned to lie in wait for illegal immigrants near a check gate in an irrigation canal. Swift and deep, the canal was the first hurdle for crossers after the river, and the gate was like a catwalk across it. Separated by about forty feet in the darkness, agents Lugo and Gamez intended to jump the first group that walked between them. It was a sound plan, but something went wrong. Though stories vary about what exactly happened, while Lugo was chasing a group of immigrants, his partner Gamez vanished.

The gantlet of trails along that stretch is difficult to navigate during the day, let alone in the dark. Agents searched throughout the night, but the grim discovery of Gamez’s corpse didn’t come until mid-morning, after the irrigation canal was drained several feet. They speculated that he had probably lost his footing while pursuing the immigrants across the narrow canal gate and fallen into the water below. Yet the following week, an autopsy found that Gamez had been struck on the head three times and strangled. Suddenly, supervisors realized that the search party had trampled through a crime scene. Even more unsettling, the last person known to have seen the murder victim alive was his partner, and Lugo’s story didn’t add up.

In South Texas, Gamez’s disappearance made headlines for days, a few of them hinting that the killer could have been Lugo. It didn’t help that he seemed to change his story each time he told it. He contradicted himself about the events leading up to the encounter with the immigrants, about the direction they came from and ran, and about the last place he’d seen Gamez alive. But what could Lugo’s motive have been? No one knew.

And no one knows. The case, one of many unsolved murders on the border over the years, still gnaws at agents who knew Gamez and Lugo. They can’t understand why it was never solved. Though Lugo has never been arrested or indicted in connection with Gamez’s death, he was the lead suspect for a number of years in an investigation conducted by the FBI. That case ultimately went cold, with no conclusion. A separate administrative investigation by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which at the time maintained jurisdiction over the Border Patrol, sustained an allegation of “inattention to duty” but not an allegation that Lugo’s actions had “resulted in or contributed to the death of Gamez.”

The INS stopped short of firing Lugo, but the incident still threw the protective bond of the badge into question. Some agents believed that he was unfairly scapegoated. Some had grave questions about his role in the crime. Lugo, for his part, denied any involvement whatsoever. In fact, the central effort of his adult life has been convincing people that he is innocent. He wrote an unpublished book titled “The Exoneration.” In 1982 he and his wife sued the FBI and the INS for $21 million, alleging that the investigations had put pressure on him “at every turn to confess to actions and/or crimes he did not commit.” The case was dismissed. If he is innocent, Lugo’s life has been a second tragedy, a slow death weighed down by suffocating stress and disappointments. But is he? After thirty years, what happened is still a mystery.

Lugo and Gamez both came from large Spanish-speaking families in South Texas border towns, but that’s where the similarities end. Growing up in Laredo, Gamez traveled often with his parents for migrant farmwork. Lugo was raised around field work too, but his father owned trucks, organized laborers, and was involved in local politics, a full-contact sport in his hometown of Donna.

The two men followed different paths into the Border Patrol. Gamez decided to join after chatting with agents while fueling their trucks when he worked at a gas station in Laredo. Lugo came in after a stint in the Army. He was drafted in 1967 and sent to Vietnam, but halfway through his one-year tour, he returned home to be near his sick father. He would finish the second half of his military obligation as a lifeguard at Fort Sam Houston. The war marked a turning point in Lugo’s life. When he came home to Texas, he was nervous, his thoughts drifted, and he kept to himself, said his older brother, Roberto, who later became the first Hispanic mayor of Donna. Lugo was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (he still receives government disability payments for the condition). But he fulfilled his goal to graduate from college, earning a marketing degree in 1971 from what is now the University of Texas-Pan American, in Edinburg. He landed a job in a state welfare office, married in 1973, and a few years later, on a whim, took the Border Patrol exam and passed.

Gamez was placed in Eagle Pass in 1976. George Baxter, who graduated at the top of Gamez’s academy class and was also sent to Eagle Pass, remembers Gamez as a prudent, quiet agent, one who took notes and drew maps of the areas he patrolled in Maverick County. Lugo cut a different figure. He was opinionated and outspoken, especially on the subject of inequalities between Anglo and Hispanic agents. But former colleagues described him as a misfit, whose lavish storytelling about war and women was part of his persona. “Most of the time I would just tune him out,” recalled agent Joe Mendez, of Dallas, a friend of Lugo’s, who retired in 2004. “One thing, it was Vietnam, then working somewhere else. Then, about the fourth or fifth time around, he’d be back at Vietnam again with a different story, and you would be, ‘Frank, nobody would believe these stories you are trying to

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