Who Will Watch the Watchers?

In an increasingly militarized zone along the Rio Grande, there are more border patrol agents on the ground than ever before, and more violent clashes between agents and Mexican citizens. Which raises a fundamental concern: Who will watch the watchers?
A frame from the video of Guillermo Arévalo Pedraza’s shooting, on September 3, 2012.

The video begins with an establishing shot of sorts: A Mexican flag dangles from a flimsy pole—a fishing rod, maybe—that somebody has stuck in the dirt in the foreground. Beyond we see the back of a man in a yellow shirt standing on the gently sloping bank of a river that is just catching the last of the late-afternoon light. He is standing perfectly still, watching a boat perhaps 150 feet away from him, near the steep, carrizo-covered opposite bank. It’s an eighteen-foot aluminum airboat with a low deck and an enormous motorized fan on the rear that emits a deafening roar. The camera zooms in on the boat, which is pointed upstream, holding its position against the considerable current. The light is not great, and neither is the focus, but we can just make out the white shirtsleeves of the driver, and perhaps the outline of another man seated on a small bench in the front of the boat, along with the familiar green stripe of the U.S. Border Patrol on the boat’s silver profile.

We hear an unseen woman’s voice—the filmmaker—rising above the drone. “He is taking aim, right? At them?” she says in Spanish. There is a muttered reply from nearby. The camera pans left, and we are now looking out from behind the windshield of a parked truck—our videographer has been sitting in the front seat all along, filming through the open window on the passenger side. Now we can see people on the riverbank having a barbecue: A middle-aged man in a yellow baseball cap and long white shorts is leaning idly against a white Buick sedan. A skinny young man in a muscle T squats at the man’s feet, while another stands nearby. A woman sits on the hood of the car, looking placidly down at the river. A girl, maybe ten, in an orange tank top ducks into one of the Buick’s rear doors, reaching for something, while another, slightly younger, walks away from the car, swinging her arms back like she is getting ready to skip, or perhaps execute a standing broad jump. 

There are dragonflies in the air, and everyone is moving in that lazy way you do on a summer evening, after the food and the beer are mostly gone but the lingering sun keeps people from going home. It would be a pleasant scene but for the steady roar of the airboat. The man in the yellow hat, who has only a few more minutes to live, turns to greet someone who has just walked up. “ Ya quítala,” we hear the filmmaker’s companion say. “Turn it off.”

When the camera comes back on, everything is different. Instead of the steady drone, the airboat’s motor is revving wildly. Suddenly our filmmaker leaps out of the truck and runs toward the water, the camera pointed down at the gravel beach and bouncing wildly with each step. It sounds like we are at a NASCAR race now, the boat has gotten so loud, yet the camera stays pointed down, maddeningly averted from whatever commotion is drawing us to the river. Just as we pass a white plastic picnic table with a blue cooler next to it, we hear the shots: seven of them in quick succession, each one sounding on the camera’s cheap microphone like the ka-chunk of a heavy-duty stapler. The gunfire makes our filmmaker stop, finally, and bring the camera up before her.

We see the aftermath. Down by the river there are a dozen or more people screaming and crying. The man in the yellow ball cap is lying on his back about ten feet from the water. A woman stoops over him, wailing. “That’s against the law! That’s against the law!” someone can be heard screaming in English. The boat circles once and seems to stop at the far bank momentarily, before speeding away upstream.

The man in the video was a 37-year-old bricklayer named Guillermo Arévalo Pedraza. He was shot in Nuevo Laredo on September 3, 2012, during a visit to the river with his wife, Nora Lam Gallegos; their two daughters, Mariana, who was nine, and Priscilla, who was ten; and several friends. The shooting took place in a popular park called El Patinadero, where families come on weekends to swim, fish, and relax at the barbecue pits and picnic tables. Arévalo’s wife and daughters all had late-summer birthdays, and Arévalo had cooked a carne asada as a kind of collective celebration. It was a Monday night, and the park was not crowded, though several other families, some with children, were picnicking nearby. The Border Patrol airboat appeared after Arévalo and his family had eaten and the party was winding down. Interviews conducted by the Tamaulipas state police and depositions collected from witnesses by Lam’s American attorney all tell the same story about what happened next, during the missing portion of the video. Shortly after the boat appeared, a young man jumped out of the carrizo on the Texas side of the river, plunged into the water, and began swimming toward the park. Before he could make it, though, the airboat circled him in midstream, while an officer in a black face mask tried unsuccessfully to grab him.

A small crowd soon formed by the side of the river, as people in the park became aware of the chase. They began shouting at the agents to stop circling the swimmer, who by now had been in the water fighting both the current and the boat’s heavy wake for some time. The beach was strewed with small rocks, and one witness reported that one or two men—though not Arévalo—threw rocks at the boat but failed to connect, because the boat was too far away. (Five other witnesses reported that no rocks were thrown.) Eventually the swimmer managed to get past the boat. Just as he was about to reach the safety of Mexican soil, the masked officer in the front of the boat suddenly

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