The fatal shooting of a teenager suspected of throwing rocks at U.S. Border Patrol agents has prompted strong condemnations from Mexican officials and human rights groups amid a sharp increase in agent-involved killings along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The suspected smuggler was shot Wednesday night by agents after they ordered a group of youths near downtown Nogales, Mexico, to stop throwing rocks, according to U.S. officials. Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, 16, died at the scene from several bullet wounds, according to Mexican authorities in the state of Sonora, which sits across the border from Arizona.
Under agency guidelines, repelling rock attacks with bullets can be regarded as a justifiable use of force in part because rocks have inflicted serious injuries on agents. But critics have grown increasingly vocal at the frequency of such incidents and what they call a lack of transparency in follow-up investigations. Wednesday’s confrontation was the third incident since September; at least 15 civilians have died in agent-involved confrontations since 2010.
“The disproportionate use of lethal force in the exercise of immigration control functions is unacceptable under any circumstances,” the Mexican Ministry of Exterior Relations said in a statement. “These kinds of acts, especially because they are recurring, have been rejected by Mexican society and all of the country’s political powers.”
The FBI has launched an investigation. Mexican authorities, who interviewed witnesses outside the bullet-marked medical office building where the teenager was shot, are also investigating. They urged that the U.S. inquiry be “exhaustive, timely and transparent.”
Agents in such cases are rarely prosecuted. Investigations typically conclude that they acted in self-defense. U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in a statement that the agency’s “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.”
The circumstances surrounding some recent cases have raised questions among critics who fear a culture of impunity has taken hold among U.S. border agencies. Some people who died have been shot in the back. Some were teenagers throwing rocks from long distances who didn’t seem to pose an immediate threat to agents, critics say.
In September, Guillermo Arevalo Pedroza was killed on the banks of the Rio Grande in Nuevo Laredo after agents on an airboat allegedly came under a rock attack. Mexican officials say he was picnicking with his family.
“This father was not trying to cross the border; he was trying to pass a good day with his kids,” Mexican President Felipe Calderon told the Wall Street Journal in an interview last month.
A video purporting to show the incident has been widely viewed in Mexico.
Wednesday night’s confrontation began when suspected smugglers were seen carrying marijuana into Arizona, according to U.S. authorities. Agents converged on the scene, sending the men fleeing back into Nogales, Mexico.
The agents came under attack by rock throwers and ordered them to stop, U.S. authorities said. “They didn’t cease and agents discharged their weapons,” said Victor Brabble, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The teenager, who was a resident of Nogales, fell face-down on a sidewalk across the street from the border fence.
Alberto Jose Rodriguez, spokesman for the state human rights commission in Sonora, called the shooting discriminatory. “There were 14 shots. They treated him like an animal, completely violating his human rights,” Rodriguez said.
Times researcher Cecilia Sanchez in Mexico City contributed to this report.