In its sternest disciplinary action in recent history, the Border Patrol has moved to fire five agents in a case that began with an agent hitting an illegal immigrant on the head with a rock and escalated into a conspiracy to cover up the incident, agency officials said Monday.
The case also resulted in a campaign of harassment against a rookie agent who told the truth, underscoring the difficulties of investigating wrongdoing in the tightknit brotherhood of border agents.
The multiple dismissals apparently are intended to send a message that the Border Patrol is rooting out rogue officers and professionalizing its image.
"It's important to put everyone on notice: There are some things which you cannot do and continue to be a U.S. Border Patrol agent," said Deputy Chief William T. Veal, who declined to discuss particulars or identify the agents because of potential appeals. "I am very concerned about the nature of the misconduct."
The incident occurred on the afternoon of Nov. 18, 1993, when six agents from the Chula Vista station chased seven border crossers into a marsh and hurled rocks at them to flush them out, law enforcement sources said. An illegal immigrant, Marco Antonio Cardenas Ruiz, suffered a bloody head wound that later required stitches, authorities said. The agents abruptly left the scene and, in a strange role reversal, the injured Cardenas went to a nearby store and called San Diego police to complain.
During the ensuing federal investigation, only the rookie agent broke the code of silence, admitting that he and the other agents were involved. Authorities say he paid the price: Vandals slashed the tires and roof of his utility vehicle outside his home, and he received anonymous threatening messages, including a piece of cheese wrapped in a note calling him a rat.
Investigators from the FBI and the office of the inspector general, the internal affairs arm of the Justice Department, failed to identify the culprits behind the harassment. Within two months of the incident, commanders transferred the rookie agent to the U.S.-Canada border for his safety.
"We thought it was in his best interest and he agreed," Veal said. Border Patrol agents probably were behind the harassment, he said, but "there is nothing linking these [five] officers to these things."
Although federal prosecutors declined to file criminal charges, the Border Patrol has used the findings of the exhaustive investigation to punish the five agents for conduct unbecoming an officer and failure to report the incident, Veal said.
The agents have received preliminary dismissal notices in the past 10 days and are expected to appeal to the Border Patrol chief here, Johnny Williams, who will make a final ruling, Veal said. He was unaware of a previous instance in which so many agents have faced dismissal in a single case.
Termination would be an extremely unusual outcome for an allegation of excessive force against the agency, which has worked to reduce nagging problems of border violence, abuse by agents, flawed hiring and slow internal investigations.
Many similar cases have foundered because of ambiguous circumstances and elusive, frightened victims and witnesses. Paradoxically, U.S. and Mexican officials agree that border crossers who follow through with complaints against agents are more likely to have criminal records and embellish their accounts, while genuine victims tend to keep silent.
By trying to cover up the offense, the accused agents may have brought on a more severe punishment, a Justice Department official said.
"It is a very disturbing case," the official said. "The message is, if you screw up, be upfront about it. Especially with the retaliation against [the rookie], they had to do something."
The reaction among fellow agents has been dismay.
"It kind of got everyone's attention," said Border Patrol spokeswoman Ann Summers, a former supervisor at the Chula Vista station, where the agents worked. "There has been lots of talk."
Some agents have expressed outrage, declaring that their co-workers have been scapegoated for political reasons. The head of the agents' national union, T.J. Bonner, said the union plans to fight the proposed firing, which he called unjustified.
"We do intend to vigorously fight for the rights of these agents," Bonner said. "I think they are trying to make examples of these agents. I don't think there's any doubt about that."
The accused agents are journeymen whose experience levels range from two to nine years, a Justice Department official said. One of the senior agents has three prior complaints of excessive force on his record, the official said.
If the Border Patrol chief upholds the firing, the agents can appeal to arbitration boards here and in Washington. The success of agents in overturning disciplinary actions on appeal has angered Border Patrol critics. And critics and agents alike assail a cumbersome internal oversight process that keeps wrongly accused agents in limbo and helps abusive agents elude punishment by delaying resolution--more than two years in this case.
Despite a new program instituted by the U.S. attorney's office here to speed decisions on filing charges against law enforcement officers, prosecutors did not complete their review of the Cardenas case and return it to the Border Patrol until April.
Nonetheless, Veal said, "most cases come back very fast. We have fixed the process."