Fifteen-year-old Eduardo Garcia Zamores, one of the legions of youths who make their living selling gum and newspapers at the U.S.-Mexico border, had one leg in Mexico and another in the United States early Nov. 18 when he was shot in the torso by a U.S. Border Patrol agent.
Garcia, being curious, had scaled the fence to check out a scuffle in the United States, when suddenly he spotted la migra , as the Border Patrol is called, and tried to hustle back to Mexico. The agent’s bullet struck him as he straddled the top of the fence.
“He got out of his car, took out his pistol and shot,” Garcia said in a hospital interview, his voice weak after surgery. “He just came and fired. He didn’t say a word.”
This is the latest incident in a wave of border-area shootings by law enforcement officials that have left five immigrants dead and three injured along the California-Mexico frontier in the last year. Thieves, often working with Mexican police, have killed at least nine others, and police have linked another shooting death to a San Diego resident.
The recent deaths have occurred in the midst of what Mexican authorities and U.S. human rights advocates say is growing anti-immigrant sentiment in Southern California, a development exemplified by periodic “Light Up the Border” demonstrations seeking greater enforcement along the international boundary.
The rising violence, for the first time, has drawn the attention of President Bush and Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who issued a joint denunciation after their recent two-day meeting in Monterrey, Mexico.
Mexican authorities, asserting that Border Patrol agents are seldom, if ever, prosecuted in connection with the shooting of immigrants, have begun to call on the U.S. government to end “impunity” for American agents, who are generally said to have been acting in self-defense.
The Bush Administration, which has improved relations with the Mexican government in pursuit of a free-trade agreement, is beginning to respond.
During the Monterrey meeting, Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh said he presented Mexican officials with an “exhaustive review” of about 60 cases of shooting deaths and injuries, sexual assaults and other border violence over the last decade.
Presidents Bush and Salinas agreed that officials from both countries will meet in February to discuss measures taken to relieve border violence. Subsequently, Gene McNary, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, announced that the Border Patrol will review its training and field tactics “to eliminate or dramatically reduce” the incidents of violence.
Most of this surge of violence is concentrated in the San Diego region, which is the principle crossing zone for hundreds of thousands of undocumented Latinos en route north each year.
Salinas is expected to address the issue of violence during a visit to Baja California on Monday and Tuesday. Among the recent cases that have caused the rising concern are:
* The shooting death May 18 of 12-year-old Emilio Jimenez Bejines at the Tijuana-San Diego border. No one has been charged with the killing, but an American citizen who lives in the border area remains a prime suspect.
* The killing May 21 of bricklayer Jose Eleazar Lopez Ballardo, 24, shot by a San Diego police officer along an interstate highway. The officer said he fired in self-defense at Lopez Ballardo, who was wielding a trowel. Authorities ruled that the shooting was justified.
* The shooting Sept. 9 of Victor Mandujano Navarro, 17, by a Border Patrol agent at the international boundary. Three witnesses told Mexican authorities that the agent pulled the victim from the border fence, pinned him on the ground and put the gun muzzle against his chest before pulling the trigger. No charges have been brought in that case.
Border Patrol agents were also blamed for two deaths in December, 1989, and one on Nov. 1, 1989.
In another incident, a Border Patrol agent last May fired three shots into the back of a van filled with more than a dozen illegal immigrants, wounding a Mexican teen-ager and a Salvadoran woman. Police say the agent may have been attempting to shoot out the vehicle’s tires. Investigators say the officer faced no deadly threat.
“The Mexican government is concerned about the impunity of the members of the Border Patrol (and police),” said Enrique Loaeza, the Mexican consul in San Diego, who asserted that agents are not prosecuted for shooting undocumented immigrants. “What they qualify as legitimate self-defense allows for a huge margin of discretion.”
For their part, Border Patrol authorities say that the number of shootings and alleged incidents of abuse are minuscule compared to the huge volume of people detained by agents. The patrol, an arm of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, recorded more than 1 million arrests in the last fiscal year.
“When you’re dealing with that much volume, something is going to happen,” said Gustavo De la Vina, chief patrol agent in San Diego, where nearly 800 agents are based. “There have been incidents, but is it total mayhem? I don’t think so. Is it a racist attitude, a shoot-to-kill attitude? I don’t think so.”
The Border Patrol, like other police forces, requires that agents resort to lethal force only to save their lives or the lives of others.
Border Patrol officials point out that most of the violence is committed by organized bands of Mexican thieves who prey on the migrants crossing frontier hills and canyons in the dark of night.
San Diego police figures show that such violence continues to rise with an upswing in illegal immigration. Two killings and 60 robberies were reported in 1982. But during the first eight months of this year, nine killings and 228 robberies were reported, according to police spokesman Bill Robinson.
Now, in addition to clashes with U.S. law enforcement officials and gangs of thieves, the undocumented aliens face a newer threat in the form of so-called “hate crimes"--attacks from American vigilantes who want to stop Latinos from entering the country.
In one case, two San Diego teen-agers--motivated by their dislike for Mexicans--shot and killed two immigrant field hands along an isolated road in November, 1988. Both were convicted and sentenced to long prison terms.
Exacerbating the general climate of border violence, says Loaeza, the Mexican consul, are a series of what he calls anti-Mexican demonstrations.
Almost every month, scores of Americans stage “Light Up the Border” rallies at the international boundary. Behind the slogans “Order on Our Border” and “Support the Border Patrol,” they shine the headlights of their vehicles toward Mexico in a symbolic rebuff of illicit immigration.
Loaeza argues that the Border Patrol should denounce these demonstrations. “I am not saying the Border Patrol has backed these rallies, but they are not distancing themselves, either,” he said.
Earlier this year, two Border Patrol agents in San Diego were disciplined for using their vehicle’s public address system to taunt would-be immigrants at the border with racial and sexual slurs.
The busy Tijuana-San Diego border has a history of violence, but the shooting of the Garcia youth last month stunned this desert community of Mexicali. Residents, angered by what they perceived to be the callousness of the Border Patrol, shut down the Mexicali-Calexico border crossing for nine hours Nov. 28 in protest.
Mexican officials, meanwhile, have said they may seek the extradition of the agent involved.
Calexico Police Chief Leslie Ginn, whose department is investigating the shooting, says the unidentified Border Patrol agent maintains that he shot Garcia as the youth was poised to throw a rock at him from atop the fence. The agent says he ordered the youth to halt before firing.
According to Garcia, he and friends were chatting with some taco vendors on the Mexican side of the border about 1 a.m. when he saw a couple of young men taunting Border Patrol agents across the fence. He says he saw them hiding behind a car on the U.S. side.
“I jumped over the fence. . . . I just wanted to see what was happening on the other side,” said the slight teen-ager, who has hawked goods at the international boundary for the last six years.
Garcia, like many other youths, said he sometimes crosses the fence as often as twice a week to go shopping, buy a hamburger or wash cars in the United States.
“When I jumped over the fence, the migra was coming with the headlights out. I heard the motor, and then he turned on the lights. . . . I ran back,” Garcia said, adding that he quickly scaled the 10-foot-high fence.
Garcia denied he had been throwing rocks. The agent, according to Garcia, said nothing. He heard only the single shot that knocked him to the ground unconscious on the Mexican side.
Two vendors who were at the scene, Ramona Nunez and Bertha Rosales, also denied that Garcia had been throwing rocks. Garcia’s companion, Ricardo Gutierrez, said the agent never shouted for Garcia to halt.
Garcia suffered injuries to his lung, diaphragm, liver and spleen. A lawyer representing the family in a $9-million negligence claim against the Border Patrol asserts that lasting injuries may prevent the youth from earning a living.
The teen-ager has supported his mother and several of his seven siblings on up to $18 a day that he earned as a hawker at the border and washing windshields. His mother, Gregoria Zamores, said he paid for the family’s two-room house.
“What does a mother feel when this happens?” Zamores asked. “It is an act of injustice. Anger won’t bring back his health. I only want the one who is responsible to be punished.”