Border Patrol agents and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers have killed more than 40 people since 2005, according to government records and statistics kept by civil rights groups. The violence recently has accelerated – more than half of the killings have occurred in the past four years. A half-dozen of those more recent deaths involved teenagers like Juan Mendez.
After shooting Mendez in the back, Taylor Poitevent faced no serious repercussions, despite his immediate worry about being convicted of killing an unarmed fleeing man. Nearly four years after the Oct. 5, 2010, shooting, he has not faced criminal charges. He went on administrative leave and eventually transferred to another Border Patrol station in South Texas, where he still works today.The deaths have resulted from agents shooting at people throwing rocks from Mexico, confrontations with smugglers and, in one bizarre case, an incident in which an agent shot a Taser dart at a car that burst into flames with the driver inside. Among the dead are foreigners and U.S. citizens, Anglos and Latinos, old men and boys, criminals and one of the Border Patrol’s own. No agent has been convicted of any crime related to a death in any of the 40-plus incidents.
Poitevent did not respond to requests for comment made to his family members.
The Justice Department declined to prosecute the agent. Investigators from the FBI closed their investigation in 2011, followed by the Department of Homeland Security inspector general in early 2012. The local district attorney concluded that he couldn’t prosecute a federal agent, and there was insufficient evidence to charge him anyway.
The decisions to neither prosecute nor investigate further relied heavily on what some officials consider to be a weak investigation by a Texas Ranger, whose credibility previously had been challenged. The local district attorney decided not to prosecute because a Border Patrol agent isn’t a Texas peace officer, which several officials regard as an interpretation of state law that is questionable at best.
For a dozen current and former local and federal law enforcement officials with direct knowledge of the investigation, the fact that an agent shot a fleeing unarmed man and did not face criminal penalties is, like other such shootings, a miscarriage of justice.
“You don’t shoot someone in the back because they beat you up,” said Robert Sifuentes, the Maverick County Sheriff’s Office’s lead investigator into the Mendez shooting…
In many ways, the Mendez case is a fitting window into the rise of violence in the Border Patrol, part of the nation’s largest law enforcement agency. The shooting involves someone whose death would not ignite the same public interest or media scrutiny as one of several lethal cross-border shootings by the Border Patrol into Mexico, or an immigrant killed by police on the streets of New York City. Mendez was an 18-year-old high school dropout, convicted thief and neophyte drug runner living in an isolated Texas border town. He was a U.S. citizen.
By his 18th birthday, Mendez had been arrested 17 times – the first time at 12 – and his case file was three folders thick. The charges ranged from marijuana possession and trespassing to burglary and assault, but almost all of those came as a minor. He had been involved with a gang when he was younger but was not suspected of any gang affiliation by the time he was an adult. His former juvenile probation officer described him as “a regular” who was “riding in the fast lane.” He often did that while high. He did not cut a sympathetic figure.
Yet the casual investigation into Mendez’s death offers a case study into how the standards of justice applied to police shootings in departments across the country have been largely jettisoned when it comes to the Border Patrol. The incident also illustrates how a poorly managed system of oversight has failed time and again to investigate abuses. Much of the reason is years of political infighting among homeland security agencies, despite Congress and Obama administration officials’ knowledge of these long-festering problems.
Outside the policies on using force, the operating philosophy for Customs and Border Protection – the parent agency of the Border Patrol – is protect your own and encourage agents to do what they have to do to get home safe. In the end, the Border Patrol agent was considered the victim, not Mendez.