A Year Later, Mexican Youth Still Haunted by Border Shooting
The nightmares come less frequently now, one year later. Still, Humberto is a wary 13-year-old, absent some of his former spontaneity and youthful zest. His mother says sudden loud noises--the buzz of aircraft, a gunshot on television--can bring a sharp fear. He rarely wanders far from his hillside home here. Alone, he never ventures back to his old neighborhood near the border, where it all happened.
“I really don’t like to go back there by myself,” says the bashful youth, as he glances to his mother for support. “I know a lot of people there; they treat me like some kind of hero . . . I’m afraid if I’m back there, something might happen again and this time I will die. Then I’d be a real hero.”
He and his mother share a grin; it is the humor of two people who have survived an ordeal and can laugh about it afterwards.
“My son is very dear to me,” she says.
On April 18, 1985--one year ago last Friday--an officer of the U.S. Border Patrol shot Humberto Carrillo Estrada as the then 12-year-old stood on Mexican soil, a few feet from the fence that delineates the borders of the two nations. The boy was shot in the back. The .38 caliber bullet entered his left side beneath his shoulder, smashed a rib, and lodged near the shoulder on his right side; it was later removed surgically. The rib protected his heart and probably saved his life.
Along a border where shootings are not uncommon, this one stood out. It made international headlines, further straining relations between Washington and Mexico City at a time when the border was extremely tense because of the recent murder of a U.S. drug agent. Mexico lodged formal protests with the U.S. State Department over the shooting. Mexican officials and others showered Carrillo’s impoverished family with gifts--among them a color television that still sits in its box because there is no electricity in his neighborhood.
In the United States, the incident drew condemnation from those who saw in the incident a symbol of all the inequities and frustrations that meet at the chain-link fence where two diverse worlds converge in an often-uncomfortable union. They maintained it was indicative of a pattern of abuse by the Border Patrol, an agency that has long been the subject of harassment charges along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“It was a national disgrace,” said Roberto Martinez of San Diego, chairman of a coalition of groups that monitors alleged abuses along the border.
The frustration peaked when U.S. officials exonerated Edward Cole, the Border Patrol agent who shot the youth. An investigation by the San Diego County District Attorney’s office found that Cole used reasonable force in the face of a rock-throwing barrage by the youth. A Border Patrol inquiry reached the same conclusion.
“The agent felt it was a life-threatening situation for him and his partner, and he thought he was acting in self defense,” said John Belluardo, a spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, parent body of the Border Patrol.
One year later, that issue still rages.
Humberto says he never threw a pebble; he says he only shouted to officers to stop beating his older brother, Eduardo, who had ducked through the fence illegally to buy a hamburger on the U.S. side. Humberto acknowledges that he stooped to pick up a rock before he was shot.
“Wouldn’t anyone come to the assistance of their brother if he was being beaten?” asked Carrillo’s mother, Maria Elena Estrada. “It’s a question of blood. Even if he did go for a rock, is that a reason to shoot him?”
Still pending are the results of two other investigations--one by the California attorney general, the other by the INS’s Office of Professional Responsibility, an internal affairs unit. Meanwhile, the family has filed a civil lawsuit against the United States, seeking $3 million in damages for alleged assault and negligence by the officer.
In the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Diego, the boy and his mother charge that Border Patrol agent Cole “was dangerous, uncontrollable, had exhibited violent tendencies in the past, and had been subject to psychotic episodes . . . . " Marco E. Lopez, the San Fernando lawyer representing the family, declined in a telephone interview to provide additional details, other than to note that agent Cole had been involved in another shooting.
That episode occurred in August 1982, while Cole was on horseback patrol duty at the border. He fired on a group of aliens who were harassing him by pelting him with rocks, said Ed Pyeatt, a spokesman for the U.S. Border Patrol in San Diego. It was not known if any aliens were hit. During the attack, Pyeatt said, Cole--who remained on horseback--received a head gash that required more than a dozen stitches. In that case, too, the Border Patrol spokesman said, Cole had responded appropriately to a threat.
Cole, a five-year Border Patrol veteran at the time of the shooting, transferred to Buffalo, N.Y., after the Carrillo incident. Officials said the transfer was voluntary.
“He was obviously under a considerable amount of stress and everyone concerned agreed he would benefit by a change of station,” said Belluardo, the INS spokesman.
Cole did not return several telephone messages left in Buffalo. Michael Quinton, the Assistant U.S. Attorney in San Diego who is defending the government in the family’s lawsuit, declined to comment on the allegations.
Meanwhile, in Tijuana, Humberto Carrillo’s life has returned to a kind of guarded normalcy after two hospital stints, unexpected international celebrity and the simple trauma of almost being killed at the age of 12. He is back in school, but he says he quickly returns home after classes, rarely roaming near the border fence, which used to be his playground before the shooting.
Humberto displays obvious discomfort when recounting the painful incident. He is embarrassed when classmates ask him if he is really the one who was shot. When he speaks, mostly after being gently prodded by his mother, he does so with simple eloquence.
“I thought I was going to die,” Humberto said simply during an interview at his house here.
On that spring afternoon, the boy said he had gone down to the border neighborhood, where he used to live, to play with his friends. He said he saw his brother being pursued and eventually caught and beaten by Border Patrol officers on the U.S. side.
Then, he said, another vehicle drove up and Cole and a partner emerged. He said he saw Cole crouch and take aim.
“He shot at me,” Humberto said of the officer. “I felt the wound, very strong . . . It was like a fierce heat. It burned very hot . . . Blood starting to come from my mouth and my nose. It tasted like rust . . . I cried, ‘No!’ I cried very loud. People came to help. I couldn’t walk any longer. I fell down. People were crying and yelling.”
He said he turned to a nearby teen-age girl, a friend. “I told her . . . ‘If I die, please don’t let my mother alone, help her.’ She cried, ‘You’re not going to die! You’re not going to die!’ ”
Later, when neighbors came to Humberto’s house and told his mother what had happened, she said she was incredulous.
“They shot Berto! They shot Berto!” she recalls them screaming, using the boy’s nickname. “I thought they must be mistaken. I thought it must have been a bigger boy. He never fights or anything like that.”
By then, Berto had been taken by helicopter to Mercy Hospital in San Diego, where the bullet and cracked rib were removed.
Physically, Humberto, who has grown a few inches in the past year, says he still has limited use of his left arm, which he cannot use to lift anything heavy. While playing basketball, his favorite sport, he favors his right arm. On his back, a foot-long, arc-shaped scar attests to his surgery; two blunt reddish scars remain where the bullet entered and was removed.
His family, including his mother, four younger sisters and and older brother, live in a sagging four-room structure situated about five miles south of the border in a squatters’ neighborhood known as Colonia Emiliano Zapata, after the Mexican revolutionary hero. Living conditions are emblematic of those of tens of thousands of poor residents of Mexican border cities, which are home to a steady influx of migrants fleeing the nation’s impoverished interior in search of a better life.
Their house is a tar paper and wood structure with a plain cement floor; the wind and rain easily pass through its many gaping holes. Drinking water is purchased from trucks. Lighting is provided by kerosene lamps. An outhouse serves as a bathroom.
The house is perched on a precipice; almost directly in front is a steep 15-foot drop. None of the children have fallen down yet, the mother says.
The Carrillo family came to Tijuana five years ago from their home in the Mexican interior state of Michoacan, where Humberto was born. The poor region is one of the principal sources of migrants to northern Mexico and the United States.
“In the south, you know, it’s a sad life,” said Estrada, a single mother who looks considerably older than her 37 years. She sews and irons to make some money on the side.
“There, sometimes people eat, sometimes they don’t. There’s not much opportunity to work, to better one’s lot in life.”
When Humberto’s case hit the headlines, Mexican officials were quick to offer public gifts of funds and other amenities. A senator provided $400; the governor of Baja California sends $20 a month and bought the mother a sewing machine for Christmas. There are offers of scholarships. Officials have also provided house repairs and offered land for a new house in a neighborhood with water and electric lines.
“There, they have all the services,” explains the mother. “Here, we have only hopes.”
Sitting in a cardboard box in a bedroom is one of the gifts: a the 13-inch color television, made in Japan, also a gift of the governor. The boy watched it once while in a hospital room in Tijuana having bone fragments removed. He’d like to use it some more, but can’t without electricity.
Emotionally, Humberto has not totally recovered from the trauma of being shot, according to his mother, his attorney and a U.S. psychologist who has evaluated him. His mother says he has nightmares in which he wakes up shouting, “No!” Loud noises frighten him. He expresses fears that passing airplanes and helicopters are going to start shooting at the family, his mother recounts. He fears for the safety of himself and other family members.
“Who knows what goes through his mind,” said his mother.
But he also has normal, more boyish concerns. He enjoys rock music and proudly shows a visitor his impressive, battery-operated ghetto blaster radio--a gift from his attorney and another incongruous sight in this humble setting. The boy says he wants to study to be a lawyer.
Why a lawyer? “I want to help defend the poor,” he said.
“He can be whatever he wants to be,” added his mother. “I only want him to have the opportunity. Isn’t that what any mother wants for her child?”