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?

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 dropped to one knee and fired his assault rifle at the crowd, hitting Arévalo in the thigh and the chest. “They killed him! They killed him!” his wife screamed in Spanish. His younger daughter, Mariana, had been standing next to him when he was shot, and she was in all likelihood the only person who reached him before he died. She hugged him as he lay on his back, bleeding. She was so covered with blood herself, her mother said later, that she looked like she too had been shot, as she easily could have been.

Among the witnesses at the park that evening was an American named Veronica Martinez, who worked as a nurse in Laredo but kept a home in Nuevo Laredo as well. Knowing she was an American, friends urged her to cross the bridge immediately and report what she had seen. There was no doubt in her mind, Martinez said later, that what she had witnessed was a completely unprovoked killing. Her boyfriend drove her to the nearest bridge, where she bypassed the line of pedestrians waiting to cross over and demanded to speak to someone in charge. She was interviewed by a Border Patrol supervisor and an FBI agent in a small room on the American side of the bridge. The next day, the Border Patrol issued a statement announcing only that agents in an airboat had been attacked with rocks and had used their weapons to defend themselves. There was no mention of the fatality or the victim, and the agents were not named. Newspapers and TV stations in both Laredo and Nuevo Laredo reported on the shooting on September 6, and Arévalo’s widow told reporters that the Border Patrol had killed her husband, a claim that the agency would not verify. 

The incident would likely have remained in the shadows, except that the next day the video described above—which had been made by an anonymous bystander—found its way into the hands of producers at a news organization called RN Noticias, in Nuevo Laredo. Soon after, the station posted it on YouTube, and everybody in Laredo and Nuevo Laredo could see the tragedy, or at least its aftermath, in living color. Television news all over Mexico picked up the story, and the video was shown again and again.

In Mexico, alleged Border Patrol malfeasance is a popular genre on YouTube, and there are plenty of videos that purport to show human rights violations. In this case, however, the shocking abruptness of the violence and the immediacy of the grief on display gave the video a singular impact. A few days after it was posted, a Mexican senator denounced the shooting on the floor of the Mexican congress and called for a full investigation. On September 11, Mexican president Felipe Calderón brought up the incident during a visit to the offices of the Wall Street Journal, in New York, where he sat down with the editorial board for a wide-ranging interview. “This father was not trying to cross the border, he was trying to pass a good day with his kids,” Calderón told the board, adding that this was only one of several recent shootings of Mexicans by U.S. agents. The Journal was careful not to condemn these shootings but did offer an interesting observation about how such events are perceived in the United States. Everybody had heard of Brian Terry, the Border Patrol agent whose 2010 murder had become entangled in the botched “Fast and Furious” gun-running sting, the Journal opined. But who has heard of Guillermo Arévalo Pedraza? 

Over a year and a half later, the answer to that question, at least in this country, is still “almost nobody.” The Border Patrol has released no official report on the incident, not even so much as the name of the shooter. Nor has there been any official announcement by federal investigators. Contacted for this story in late March, an FBI spokesperson would say only that the agency had completed its investigation and turned its findings over to the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. In recent months, however, the Border Patrol’s use of force has come under heightened scrutiny both in Congress and in the national media, casting a new light on Arévalo’s shooting and others like it. Border security, meanwhile, has once again become a buzzword in Washington, as a new immigration reform bill wends its way through Congress. As some in Washington call for more agents in the field as a prerequisite to negotiation on any comprehensive reform measure, Arévalo’s case poses a troubling question: While agents watch the border, who is watching them?

Border patrol shootings, especially those that involve agents shooting across the border into Mexico, used to be quite rare. Such incidents have become more common, however. Since the beginning of 2005, Customs and Border Protection officers, who work at ports of entry, and Border Patrol agents, who police the vast areas between ports, have killed at least 42 people. Some of these shootings were clearly justified, but in many instances, as in Arévalo’s case, accounts offered by agents and eyewitnesses differ.

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