The nation’s top border and customs official promised Friday to “restore the rule of law” to the U.S.-Mexico border and prosecute those responsible for the slaying of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in southern Arizona.
“We will bring the murderers to justice, and we will support the federal law enforcement authorities and the United States attorney to see that justice is done in this case,” Alan Bersin, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, declared at a memorial service for the agent at a Tucson sports stadium. No homicide charges have been brought against the four men arrested in Terry’s slaying, and a fifth suspect remains at large.
“We will finish the job that Brian participated in,” Bersin said. “We are determined to restore the rule of law to the United States-Mexico border.”
Bersin’s pledge contrasted with statements by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano just after Terry’s death Dec. 14 that the U.S. frontier is largely secure — a declaration that has elicited anger and ridicule in much of Arizona, where Napolitano served as governor.
In an interview with the Arizona Republic after the shooting, Napolitano said it would be “wrong to conclude” that drug violence is “on the rise or rampant along the border.” She characterized the death of Terry and of rancher Robert Krentz in Cochise County, in March, as “terrible crimes,” but she said “crimes occur, even when overall numbers are down.” In September, she said the border was “as secure as it’s ever been.”
“I was struck almost dumb by her characterization of the murder and mayhem that is occurring daily on both sides of our border with Mexico as ordinary crimes,” Arizona Cattle Growers Assn. President Steve Brophy said in a statement in December.
“What country in the world would tolerate illegal crossings of countless tons of drugs each year over that same area? And what country in the world would tolerate its own secretary of Homeland Security dismissing that as ‘everyday crime?’ ” said Brophy, whose organization represents ranchers whose lands are frequently traversed by illegal migrants and drug smugglers.
Bersin’s statement seemed to suggest an acknowledgement that the area south of Tucson where Terry was killed still needs attention. At Friday’s memorial, one of a string of somber ceremonies in this city since the Jan. 8 shootings of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others, Bersin said that Terry served as an example for others working to halt the flow of illegal migrants and drugs.
“We know as we sit here in this city … that it is by coming together and honoring those of public service that we begin to move on to learn and take from the example of men like Brian,” he said.
The ceremony included an honor guard, a firearm salute and a pipe-and-drum band playing as a riderless horse traversed the field. Terry was remembered as an agent driven by a determination to excel and fearlessness in tackling often nerve-wracking missions in the heart of the busiest drug-smuggling corridors in the dead of night.
“He was doing what he believed in with brothers in arms for whom he would willingly sacrifice his own life,” Randy Hill, chief patrol agent for the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector, said as some agents in wiped away tears from under their wraparound sunglasses.
A Marine and a police officer in Michigan before joining the Border Patrol in 2007, Terry, 40, had a degree in criminal justice from Henry Ford University and served as co-leader of his Border Patrol academy class.
When he decided he wanted to join the Border Patrol, “he got all his books together, he was learning Spanish, teaching himself all the stuff that was going on in Arizona and Mexico,” his mother, Josephine Terry, said in an interview. “He finally went and took the test and he was all nervous, and I think he got a 98 or 99. And he was thrilled. He couldn’t wait to come home and tell us.”
A crowd of more than 1,000, including Border Patrol agents and National Guard troops, was on hand Friday. Some said the memorial was part of more than a week of municipal mourning.
“I’ve been grief-stricken by all these events, not only this Border Patrol agent, but the shooting on the 8th. To me, it’s just a matter of being here and healing,” said Mike Dolan, a resident of northwest Tucson. “One of our young men, one of our finest, gave his life to protect that border, and it just touches me so deeply.”
Lee Earle, who represented 57 Arizona “tea party” organizations during Terry’s funeral earlier in Michigan, said additional support is needed to aid enforcement along the border.
“These guys do a wonderful job under a lot of stress and with not a whole lot of support. Agent Terry, he gave his life, and greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for his country,” Earle said. “When I was up there in Michigan, I told a Border Patrol agent there, not only are we behind you, we’ve got your back. He straightened his hat and threw me the sharpest salute you ever saw.”