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ICYMI: Leaked Report on Border Patrol Excesses Provide Early Challenge to New DHS Secretary

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New Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has his work cut out for him when it comes to immigration enforcement.  As Brian Bennett of Los Angeles Times highlights in a new story, entitled, “Border Patrol’s use of deadly force criticized in report,” the extreme and overly aggressive tactics by Border Patrol agents have resulted in needless and excessive casualties at the border, despite numerous attempts by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to defend them.  Excerpts of the article entitled follow below (read the full story in its entirety here):

Border Patrol agents have deliberately stepped in the path of cars apparently to justify shooting at the drivers and have fired in frustration at people throwing rocks from the Mexican side of the border, according to an independent review of 67 cases that resulted in 19 deaths.

The report by law enforcement experts criticized the Border Patrol for “lack of diligence” in investigating U.S. agents who had fired their weapons. It also said it was unclear whether the agency “consistently and thoroughly reviews” use-of-deadly-force incidents.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which had commissioned the review, has tried to prevent the scathing 21-page report from coming to light.

The response, marked “Law Enforcement Sensitive,” states that a ban on shooting at rock throwers “could create a more dangerous environment” because many agents operate “in rural or desolate areas, often alone, where concealment, cover and egress is not an option.”

If drug smugglers knew border agents were not allowed to shoot at their vehicles, it argues, more drivers would try to run over agents.

The new secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, is “reconsidering the response” to the two recommendations, a Homeland Security official said Wednesday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Mexican authorities have complained for years that U.S. border agents who kill Mexicans are rarely disciplined and that the results of investigations are not made public for years. Critics warn that more deaths or abuses are inevitable unless stricter rules are imposed to limit use of lethal force.

“There needs to be a level of accountability if you want to change the culture and the pattern,” said Christopher Wilson, an expert on U.S.-Mexico relations at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a think tank in Washington. “People are being killed that don’t need to be killed.”

Border Patrol officials defended the use-of-force policies, arguing that agents needed broad flexibility to protect themselves and the nation’s borders.

“In a lot of cases, Border Patrol agents find themselves in an area where they don’t have communications, they don’t have immediate backup and often don’t have the cover and concealment that urban areas provide when you are dealing with an escalation of force,” Border Patrol Chief Michael J. Fisher said in a telephone interview.

Shawn P. Moran, vice president of the Border Patrol union, said the agency was right to reject restrictions on when agents can shoot.

If smugglers “know we aren’t allowed to defend ourselves, we would see many more rock attacks …[and] assaults where vehicles try to run down agents because they would know there would be no repercussions,” Moran said from San Diego.

The Border Patrol has begun testing “less lethal” weapons — such as pepper spray, rubber bullets and Tasers — and added training on violent confrontations for new agents. Officials also now track shootings and rock-throwing incidents in a database intended to help leaders spot trends and adjust policy.

A Homeland Security Office of Inspector General report in September found that border agents opened fire on rock throwers 22 times in fiscal year 2012. It did not say how many people were injured by the “rock assaults” or by the gunfire.

The internal report does not detail specific shooting incidents. But news accounts have highlighted several deaths.

In the most recent case, a border agent fatally shot Jesus Flores Cruz, 41, on Feb. 18 in a mountainous area east of San Diego after the agent was allegedly hit in the head with a rock. Mexico’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it was “deeply concerned” about the incident.

In September 2012, Guillermo Arevalo Pedroza, a 36-year-old construction worker, was shot and killed during a picnic with his family on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. A Border Patrol agent who fired his gun from a patrol boat said he had been pelted with rocks, officials said.

Mexican authorities denounced the shooting as “unacceptable” and said Pedroza was not trying to cross the border.

A month later, Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, 16, was shot and killed near Nogales, Mexico, by a Border Patrol agent who fired through a fence. The autopsy report said Rodriguez was shot eight times in the back. The Border Patrol said the agent, whom it did not identify, was hit with rocks when he responded to reports of drug smugglers climbing the border fence.

“I believe it was excessive use of force,” Luis Parra, a lawyer for the slain teenager’s family, said in a telephone interview from Nogales, Ariz.

Parra said that the FBI had interviewed witnesses and that Mexican prosecutors were in discussions with Justice Department lawyers to give the FBI the bullets that hit Rodriguez, as well as his clothes and emergency dispatch recordings from the shooting. An FBI spokesman said the investigation was ongoing.

“The family continues to seek justice,” Parra said.