The Department of Homeland Security is reviewing guidelines for use of force by border agencies amid a sharp increase in agent-involved killings along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The scrutiny of U.S. Customs and Border Protection enforcement practices comes in response to a request by 16 members of Congress who expressed concern over the death of a Mexican man who suffered a fatal heart attack after being Tasered by a customs officer in 2010.
The review by Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General will determine whether the incident at the San Ysidro port of entry in San Diego reflected systemic brutality or use of excessive force, and whether the rapid rise in staffing in recent years has affected training.
Since 2010, at least 16 civilians have been killed by agents, many during rock-throwing confrontations involving suspected smugglers. Critics have grown increasingly vocal about rocks being met by bullets, which they consider disproportionate force.
Under the agency's guidelines, agents are permitted to use lethal force in such situations because rocks and other projectiles have caused serious injuries. Most agents involved in fatal incidents in recent years have been cleared of wrongdoing.
"CBP law enforcement personnel are trained to use deadly force in circumstances that pose a threat to their lives, the lives of their fellow law enforcement partners and innocent third parties," U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in a recent statement.
Human rights advocates and civil rights groups hailed the inspector general's move as a way to counter what they call a growing culture of impunity. It is believed to be the first time that the agency has come under such scrutiny in recent years. The inquiry was not announced publicly, but was included in the inspector general's annual performance plan, which was released Oct. 4.
"Knowingly hiring bad apples, having a policy of shooting first and asking questions later, being accountable to no one, all point to an agency that is out of control," said Christian Ramirez, human rights director at Southern Border Communities Coalition, an immigrant advocacy group.
Since September, three people have been killed in confrontations involving Border Patrol officers, including a mother of five from the San Diego suburb of Chula Vista and a 16-year-old suspected rock thrower from Nogales.
During the boy's funeral this week, mourners carried his coffin along the border fence and shouted epithets at border officials who bolstered security along the fence dividing Arizona fromSonora.
Critics question the self-defense claims by agents. Some of the suspects have been shot in the back, or from such long distances that their rock throwing wouldn't have posed a serious threat, they say. Mexican government officials said one man shot on the banks of the Rio Grande in Nuevo Laredo was picnicking with his family.
The members of Congress wrote a letter in May to the inspector general after a video surfaced showing a customs officer in San Diego using a Taser on a man, Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, who later died of a heart attack.
U.S. officials said the man, who had methamphetamine in his system, was resisting his deportation to Tijuana. Advocates say he was handcuffed and pleading for his life when the agent used the weapon, which is supposed to deliver a non-lethal jolt of electricity.
In the letter, the lawmakers urged the inspector general to determine whether the Hernandez incident is "emblematic of a broader cultural problem within CBP." They also questioned whether other fatal confrontations have been fully investigated.
"There are serious problems raised by this series of deaths tied to the department, and the fact that there did not appear to be an effort by the department to fully investigate the incidents," the lawmakers wrote.
Among the letter's signees were Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-East Los Angeles), Bob Filner (D-Chula Vista), Joe Baca (D-Rialto) and Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles).
A congressional staffer said that the investigation began a month or two ago and that the report is not expected until sometime next year.