Lawyer Takes Up Migrant Causes, Targets Alleged Abuse on Border

Times Staff Writer

While growing up in Bakersfield, Marco E. Lopez regularly delivered produce from his parents’ food-supply business to nearby camps populated by migrant laborers. Their deplorable living conditions were striking to the Mexican-American youth, who was himself accustomed to a more middle-class life style.

“I had never done farm work,” Lopez recalled last week, “so those conditions made an impression.”

So much so, in fact, that Lopez later became a lawyer specializing in migrant issues, eventually spending five years working with the United Farm Workers, the last two as the union’s general counsel.

Now, at 39, Lopez has refined his legal specialty further, into one that has earned him some prominence--and notoriety--in San Diego and elsewhere in Southern California. He is still defending the defenseless. But these days he has taken up the legal torch for undocumented Mexican citizens who, he maintains, have been wrongfully shot or otherwise abused by officers of the U.S. Border Patrol in San Diego.


In so doing, Lopez says, he is taking needed action where others have failed to do enough in confronting official abuse along the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego, the primary entry point for hundreds of thousands of U.S.-bound migrants. The Border Patrol, an enforcement arm of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, has its largest single contingent--about 800 officers--in San Diego.

“One would hope that by taking on these cases, and by winning them, the message is sent to the Border Patrol that you can’t violate people’s rights and abuse them with impunity,” Lopez said, “that there is a cost to be paid.”

Currently, Lopez says, he represents two men who were shot by agents and survived, the families of two other shooting victims who died, and one other person who was run over by a patrol vehicle. He is proceeding with civil action against the Border Patrol and the U.S. government in each case, attempting to win multimillion-dollar awards through the federal courts.

On Friday, Lopez announced that a 23-year-old Mexican laborer and his wife would file a $9-million claim for injuries suffered along the border in San Diego last March. The man was shot twice and the woman, then six months pregnant, was beaten, Lopez contends. Border Patrol officials dispute the lawyer’s account and deny any wrongdoing.


Lopez’s most striking success to date: The case of Humberto Carrillo Estrada, a 12-year-old Tijuana boy who, while standing in Mexican territory in 1985, was shot in the back by a border agent.

Federal and local authorities declined to prosecute the officer, igniting protests in the United States and Mexico. But Lopez and his co-counsel, Carlos Alcala, proceeded doggedly with the civil suit, and, in July, 1987, after a seven-day trial, a federal judge handed down a $574,000 judgment for the Tijuana boy. The judge questioned the veracity of the Border Patrol’s account.

With that victory, others with complaints against the Border Patrol have sought him out. In 1988, he moved his private practice from the San Fernando Valley to San Diego, in part because of the border business.

Some U.S. immigration officials have privately characterized Lopez as a border ambulance chaser in search of publicity and big judgments--federal law allows 25% of such post-trial civil judgments to be earmarked for legal fees. But Lopez describes himself as a lawyer with a social bent who’s just doing his job.


“I don’t take particular relish in suing my government, but what can I say?” Lopez said in Tijuana last week, after his latest press conference announcing a civil suit. “I’m a personal-injury attorney, and when I see a wrong done to a client, I prosecute the case as best I can, regardless of who the defendant is. I wouldn’t consider myself a radical. As I get older I’m more and more conservative.”

Source of Concern

His ire rose four years ago, however, when he read about the case of the Tijuana boy who had been shot. “I was just shocked that a Border Patrol agent would shoot a 12-year-old boy,” said Lopez. “I felt the agent must have went off, or he was just malicious.”

(According to U.S. and local officials, the agent shot the youth during a life-threatening barrage of rocks being thrown at the officer by Mexican citizens gathered along the border area.)


Lopez was not new to the border. He was born in the border community of Douglas, Ariz., the son of U.S.-born Mexican-Americans. He later lived for a number of years in El Paso, Tex., along the Rio Grande, before moving with his family to California, where he attended high school and college. In 1968 he met Cesar Chavez and Robert F. Kennedy in California, an experience he considers formative. Lopez attended law school at UC Berkeley.

Lopez’s public statements are typically composed more of reasoned allegations involving individual cases than of the broad polemics typical of many border activists. Colleagues and other lawyers say his cases are well-researched and meticulously prepared. In the Carrillo case, Lopez and his co-counsel presented detailed charts, maps and diagrams indicating that the shooting could not have happened as the Border Patrol agent said it had.

Contrary to the belief of many U.S. officials, Lopez says he doesn’t have anything against the Border Patrol, which he acknowledges is necessary. He is not an advocate of open borders.

“We’ve never made a general indictment against all border patrolmen,” said Lopez, who speaks in a soft but firm voice and favors dark, conservative suits. “By and large, we feel that most are dedicated people. But there is a problem that has not been addressed. . . . They’ve failed to discipline those few agents who do commit acts of violence.”


Patrol’s Viewpoint

For its part, the Border Patrol maintains that sufficient procedures are in place to ensure that any agent caught abusing his authority will be punished. “Any allegations against Border Patrol agents are investigated to their fullest extent,” said Michael Gregg, a patrol spokesman in San Diego.

Critics such as Lopez, however, say the internal mechanisms are simply insufficient, and, consequently, the abuses and unjustified shootings continue, escalating violence in which both illegal border-crossers and agents become involved.

Lopez also singles out for criticism San Diego County Dist. Atty. Edwin L. Miller, who, in his view, has declined to prosecute Border Patrol agents and San Diego police officers in some cases involving improper shootings.


“A Border Patrol officer who violates his authority should be treated like whatever other criminal,” said Lopez, who attributed the district attorney’s perceived hesitancy to prosecute the agents as an effort to avoid “politically sensitive” cases.

Not so, said Steven J. Casey, chief spokesman for the district attorney. “With all due respect to Mr. Lopez,” Casey said, “that’s fatuous nonsense. . . . The district attorney of this county has never at any time made any decision involving any case on the basis of anything remotely resembling a political decision.”