It has been an incredible week and a half of news regarding the US Border Patrol, which late Friday announced that it would direct its agents to stop using lethal force in response to rock throwers.
This long overdue policy change — sparked by the leak of an inflammatory internal audit — dates back to a series broadcast in 2012 and 2013 on PBS’s Need to Know, reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund, now known as Type Investigations, now known as Type Investigations. The broadcasts along with articles by our reporter, John Carlos Frey, in the Los Angeles Times, El Diario, the (London) Guardian, and Salon, exposed a pattern of excessive use of force by US border agents that included more than a dozen homicides.
Fatal shootings by US border agents were once a rarity. But Congress doubled the size of the Border Patrol between 2006 and 2009, creating an inexperienced and poorly trained force — and a spate of suspicious killings. Since 2010, Frey discovered, Border Patrol agents fatally wounded at least 22 people, including several alleged rock throwers. Frey’s reporting for Fusion and Washington Monthly tells the stories of a 16-year-old kid shot twice in the head as he was on his way to meet his brother, then shot eight more times as he lay prone on the ground; and of a father of two, shot in front of his wife and daughters while picnicking on the Rio Grande. Both were allegedly shot in response to rock throwing.
In one key Need to Know broadcast, Frey and the PBS team unveiled new evidence in the violent death of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, an undocumented San Diego construction worker and father of five, while he was in Border Patrol custody. Agents claimed they were acted in self-defense, but Frey tracked down video and eye-witness testimony showing Hernandez was prone on the ground, cuffed hand and foot, as he was tased to death by a group of agents.
In the days after that broadcast, 16 members of Congress sent letters to Homeland Security officials and Attorney General Eric Holder calling for an investigation into Hernandez’s death and the Border Patrol’s use of force, citing our reporting. Soon after, federal prosecutors convened a Grand Jury to investigate possible criminal charges in the case and the Inspector General for Homeland Security launched its own investigation into Customs and Border Protection’s use of force. CBP responded by announcing its own internal investigation.
The IG’s report, released in September 2013, found that agents were poorly trained about when to use force and recommended substantial changes to both training and use-of-force protocols. But CBP never released its own findings, despite requests by House and Senate oversight committees.
Then, a week and a half ago, a copy of that internal report was leaked to the Los Angeles Times. It found that some agents ran in front of moving vehicles as an excuse to open fire, and that others fired on rock throwers when they could have simply moved out of the way. Most striking, CBP’s formal response rejected a recommendation that agents be barred from shooting people who throw objects that can’t cause serious physical injury.
Last Friday, the other shoe dropped. Border Patrol Chief Michael J. Fischer reversed course, ordering agents not to open fire unless a rock “poses imminent danger of death or serious injury” and to instead seek “a tactical advantage… such as seeking cover.” If this new directive is followed, lives will be saved.
Last week, Frey was honored with an Izzy Award for outstanding achievement in independent media, given to him for tirelessly probing the “increasingly militarized US-Mexico border and rise in fatal shootings by US Border Patrol agents.” It’s been a privilege to collaborate with him in that work.