On a chilly January night near the Mexican border, a Border Patrol agent peeled away from colleagues and chased Gabriel Sanchez Velazquez through desert scrub. Two shots rang out.
When the agent returned, he said that Sanchez, a sinewy 5-foot-9 car mechanic who spoke English well after spending 15 years in the United States, had leapt from under a mesquite bush and lunged to seize the agent’s firearm, forcing him to shoot. No one has come forward to contradict his story.
Sanchez’s death was the 20th fatal shooting of a civilian by a Border Patrol agent since 2010 as the agency expanded rapidly. Last week, another shooting took place, bringing the total to 21.
The killings expose what lawyers and civil-rights advocates assert are far-reaching problems in the largest federal law enforcement agency.
Those problems, critics say, include a resistance to adopting safeguards on the use of lethal force, watered-down training standards amid rapid expansion and a mentality that anything goes in the battle to secure the borders.
Of the 21 dead, 16 were Mexican or Guatemalan. Most were unarmed, and some were on Mexican soil. One was a 16-year-old who was shot multiple times in the back as he stood on the Mexican side of the border fence. None of the shooters are known to have been disciplined, and the circumstances of most cases have not been aired in public. Sanchez’s wife and children — all American citizens — are still trying to learn the name of the man who shot him.
The spate of homicides raises an uncomfortable question, the critics say: Do Border Patrol agents have a green light to fire on and kill Central American immigrants?
Guarding the border is an issue of national security, and Border Patrol advocates argue that the agency’s mission can be dangerous, though the number of armed confrontations appears minimal.
One agent died in a shootout on Dec. 14, 2010, with bandits in Arizona’s Peck Canyon. Another notorious case happened Oct. 2, 2012, when an agent was shot to death not far from the canyon. That incident turned out to be “friendly fire,” when two agents responded to a tripped motion sensor.
“You’re working in remote areas that are intimidating and desolate. You’re often many miles from backup. You’re dealing with groups that outnumber you and that you must handle alone,” said Shawn Moran, a spokesman for the National Border Patrol Council, a union for agents.
“To claim that the Border Patrol has an itchy trigger finger, we dismiss that. It’s a very restrained force,” Moran said.
Border Patrol public affairs officer Douglas Mosier said he couldn’t comment on the agency’s policies and referred a reporter to the Homeland Security Department, which didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Mexican government calls the use of lethal force against its migrants disproportionate and demands more thorough inquiries.
A deeper look into the Sanchez case reveals discrepancies among federal, state and county agencies over what occurred.
It also reveals something else: The 31-year-old left behind grieving relatives who are American citizens. Sanchez had spent half his life in the United States. His immediate family includes an 11-year-old son with cerebral palsy, who lives with his mother in California, and an 8-year-old son who lives with Sanchez’s widow in Phoenix. All hold U.S. citizenship.
The widow, Nataly Molina Tebaqui, says she will file a federal lawsuit once her attorney can identify the agent who shot her husband in the head and chest. The government has refused to release his name.
“I want him to go to jail. I want him to feel my pain. I want his wife and his sons to feel the pain,” said Molina, 30, an accountant. “Why couldn’t he have shot him in the leg or the arm?”
In statements immediately after the death, Customs and Border Protection — part of Homeland Security — and the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office, which was called in to investigate the killing, stated as fact that Sanchez had struggled for the agent’s gun and was killed as a result.
A 12-page autopsy report by the medical examiner’s office in Pima County offers a different picture. The report, dated Feb. 5, notes that Sanchez was shot in the upper part of his right temple and in his chest.
“Manner of death: homicide,” it says.
The trajectory of the bullet wound to the head, it adds, is downward, and the bullet appears lodged in the neck. The pathway of the chest wound is also downward, indicating that Sanchez was below the agent’s firing hand, squatting or perhaps on the ground.
Time in the U.S.
Sanchez felt more at home north of the border.
When he came to the United States in the late 1990s, he followed a path well traveled by his extended clan in the dusty town of Mapastepec in Chiapas, widely considered Mexico’s poorest state, which abuts Guatemala. His mother toiled as a hotel maid in Annapolis, Md., and his aunt’s family lives in Jupiter, Fla.
Sanchez, who never obtained residency, was deported in 2008 but returned across the border within days, Molina said. Then, last April 8, U.S. marshals came knocking at the door. Molina said someone had placed a call to alert them to Sanchez.
He was charged with illegal re-entry. After four months’ detention, Sanchez was deported again. He settled in Agua Prieta, a Mexican border town about a four-hour drive from Phoenix.
Molina said she suspects that Sanchez planned to surprise her by showing up for her birthday Jan. 20. A phone call from the Mexican Consulate in Tucson summoned her instead to identify his body through photos.
For years, Homeland Security refused to say when Border Patrol agents are empowered to use lethal force. But Secretary Jeh Johnson said Feb. 7 that his department will release the use-of-force policy soon.
Supporters of the agency say drug traffickers sometimes deploy rock throwers to divert agents from focusing on smuggling routes.
They also dispute that lethal Border Patrol encounters happen with unusual frequency, given the challenges and dangers of the job. Moran, the Border Patrol union leader, compared the agency with the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which he said had numbers of deputies and officers similar to the Border Patrol in recent years.
“In 2012 alone, they shot and killed 48 suspects,” Moran said.
The American Civil Liberties Union has called on Customs and Border Protection to equip its officers with body cameras, saying such recording gear reduces the use of lethal force and protects agents from false accusations of misconduct.
Daniel R. Ortega, a Phoenix attorney who’s helping Sanchez’s widow in her claim for redress from the government, said county and state attorneys are loath to prosecute cases against Border Patrol agents.
“One, they only have the version of the facts that the Border Patrol agents give. And two, these are highly political and emotional cases because the community is in such an uproar right now over undocumented immigration,” Ortega said. “There are biases in convicting law enforcement officers for having shot someone.”
Ortega said that when Border Patrol agents killed immigrants, they commonly alleged that the immigrants were throwing rocks or were trying to steal their weapons.
“All of these aliens are not armed. So the only way a Border Patrol agent can justify shooting someone is that he was in imminent fear of death or injury and he had to take action,” Ortega said.
Afterward, few can refute the version.
“The alien is dead. He can’t tell you what happened.”