Deadly border patrols: One who lived to tell
NOGALES, Mexico – "They call me the soap opera guy."
Jesus Castro Romo states his new nickname and gestures toward the small television in front of his bed. That's where he spends most of his days, lying on his back in the bedroom he shares with his wife and youngest son, watching soap operas. Cartoons, too, and animal shows.
Ever since the Border Patrol agent shot him and the bullet damaged his spine, Castro has adjusted to a sedentary life. He used to drive a dump truck and do landscaping work. Now he walks with a cane.
"Now, I am more tranquil," Castro says. "I think of my dad, my mom, my children, and everyone else. I am more conscientious about everything. Thinking. Here at home, locked up, I only have time to spend thinking and thinking."
On this day, he moves to his covered patio that's surrounded by chain link fence and drying laundry. He wants to share the story of his "terror" in the desert and his survival.
About one and a half years ago, Castro was trying to sneak into the United States through Arizona's hilly backcountry when a Border Patrol agent on horseback spotted his group of about 12 travelers. They scattered. The agent zeroed in on Castro.
Castro claims the agent, Abel Canales, beat him, hurled insults at him and then shot him in the side before riding away. He says he waited in the desert for an hour and a half, bleeding through his clothes, thinking about his children and preparing himself for death.
An emergency crew arrived and airlifted him to University Medical Center in Tucson, where he had three operations. Once he was well enough to be released, he claims he was handcuffed to his wheelchair, was not allowed to bathe or use a restroom, and was denied access to a Mexican consular official.
Lawyers for the government said Canales acted in self defense, that Castro tried to throw a rock at him. Canales's lawyer did not respond to requests for an interview, and a lawyer for the government have declined to comment.
In January, Castro sued the U.S. government, a gutsy move for a Mexican citizen who entered the country illegally. The lawsuit is about compensation for lost income, but it also amounts to a last resort effort in a system where Border Patrol agents are rarely prosecuted for violence against migrants, and where current immigration policy, the political climate and the authority of border enforcement agencies often combine to enable Border Patrol agents to have the last word.
A months-long collaborative investigation among nonprofit newsrooms in California, Texas and New York examined fatal confrontations with border agents and found that at least 14 civilians died, most shot, since Oct. 1, 2009. This despite declines in both illegal immigration and assaults on officers.
Statistics gathered from Customs and Border Protection and compiled by reporters show one fatality four years ago and two the following year. In each of the last two years there were five and four so far this fiscal year. The agency has declined to comment in these cases.
Border Patrol agents have been prosecuted for other crimes, such as bribery and corruption, in recent years. But trials are rare for on duty situations involving lethal or excessive force.
A grand jury in San Diego took testimony last week in the death of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas,who died after being beaten and Tased in 2010 in San Ysidro. U.S. lawmakers called for an investigation of the agents' actions after a new video of the incident was aired by the PBS national newsmagazine, Need to Know, in April.
The circumstances in cases reporters investigated for this project vary: Some of the dead were Mexican, others U.S. citizens, and at least one Central American. Some were trying to cross illegally into the U.S. for the first time – a misdemeanor; others were allegedly involved in more serious crimes, like trafficking drugs. But they all died as a result of violent altercations with Border Patrol agents.
Castro's lawyer, William Risner, a straight-talking type with a crisp white mustache, is unabashed in saying Castro's lawsuit is about money. But he also said it's the only way to get justice.
Canales was suspended from the force without pay — but not for his actions in this case. Last October he was indicted on allegations he took bribes to allow drugs and illegal immigrants to be smuggled into the U.S.
Even in cases where a video has captured an altercation at the border, there are generally distinct differences in what witnesses and law enforcement say happened. Castro's case is no exception.
Castro lives in a neighborhood called Colonia Esperanza, which is one mile south of the border as the crow flies. You can't see the United States from his patio, but a quick drive brings the border wall into sight. His house, like others on his sloping street, is a pale pastel that stands out against the rocky hillside. That's where he lives with his two children — the youngest named after him, Jesus — and his wife. He has two grown children from a previous marriage. He's already a grandfather.
Many of the men in this border city of about 210,000, directly south of Nogales, AZ, work in construction or other manual labor. Castro did, too. He started working in a "dompe," or dump truck, when he was 14. Whenever work dried up, he would put his life in Mexico on hold, head to the U.S. for a job and then come home. He has been previously deported, but continued to return.
"I would go back and forth. I never tried to stay any longer," he says. "My wife is here. I did not plan on abandoning her."
His wife, Ana Luisa Alarcon-Ramirez, is precise and articulate. It's hot this morning, and she has pulled her long black hair into a twist. She finishes his sentences when he can't find quite the right words, and she interrupts him to offer richer details about their life together. They are all sitting on the covered patio – Castro, his parents with their sad eyes, his fidgety children – as he tells his story.
Early on the morning of November 16, 2010, Castro crossed into the U.S., illegally, he concedes without flinching, to get to Tucson for a landscaping job.
The hills north of the border are dusty and dense with trees and shrubs. Temperatures are disastrously hot in the summer, but on that fall day they dropped to a chilly low of 32F.
His group was traveling north, a mile or two past the border, when he spotted "muchos migra," many Border Patrol agents. The travelers ran back down a hill they had climbed, toward the creek they had crossed, and spread out. Castro says he imagined he would be safe, running back toward Mexico.
"We weren't walking into the U.S. anymore, we were leaving. So we said, according to us, we were free," he says.
"We all ran in different directions. Liliana, me and another guy ran ahead. Then Liliana went to the left, and the other guy went to the right, and I left towards the creek–and it was me that the officer chased."
Castro claims the officer called him names and started grabbing and pushing him.
"Take it easy officer, why are you hitting me? Why are you pushing me with the horse?" Castro says he asked. The officer allegedly continued to hit him with his horse and his reins.
"It was like when bees are all over you and you got them crazy. This is how he was hitting me," Castro says.
Castro says he asked the officer to stop. The agent then said, "I'm going to shoot you," Castro says. And when he cowered to protect himself, the officer allegedly shot him. When he gets to this part, Castro uses his cane as an extension of his arm, drawing on the cement where each man was standing – a few feet apart.
"And when I fell he was pointing at my head … and he told me 'I am going to kill you, you son of a bitch. Don't move I am going to hit (shoot) you in the head,' he told me."
"His eyes looked like they were about to pop out, like if he was going to kill me. But at that moment I shouted 'help' and he turned and saw Liliana (a fellow traveler) on top of the hill. And he said, 'Oh, m*****f*****.' "
Castro says the officer asked him where he was injured and said he'd go get help.
He pressed a white t-shirt from his backpack against the wound from the .40 caliber bullet and waited.
When help arrived, by helicopter, other Border Patrol agents returned with the officer, who accused Castro of hitting him in the head with a rock, Castro says.
"I told him, 'Which rock?' Never did I grab any rock."
A government lawyer declined to let Canales be interviewed, but in court documents the government argued that force was necessary against the rock-thrower.
"Agent Canales acted justifiably in self-defense to protect himself against Plaintiff's attempt to throw a large rock at him; moreover, Plaintiff, who was suspected of committing the felony of illegal entry into the United States, was attempting to avoid arrest and Agent Canales was justified in using physical force to effect a lawful arrest and prevent escape."
Investigative reports obtained by the Nogales International, the paper that first reported the incident, suggest Castro may have been a coyote. Risner denied that claim, saying his client was merely entering the U.S. to work.
At the hospital in Tucson, doctors operated on Castro to remove the bullet. Fragments had penetrated his spine, his discharge records state. He underwent two more surgeries and was discharged more than two weeks later.
That's when the second ordeal began, he says. For days he says he was mistreated by officers. He said he was handcuffed to his wheelchair, denied prescribed painkillers, transported between prison and a hospital in a freezing car while still bleeding, and not allowed to meet with the consular official who came to visit him.
"Then he handcuffed me again and I said, 'Why do you handcuff me again if I can't even walk, I can't run.' 'No,' he tells me, 'it is safer this way.' He shoved me into the patrol car handcuffed and all cut, bleeding," he says.
In March 2011. a bus dropped Castro back in Mexico.
"They should pay for their mistake"
Around lunch time, Castro swallows a fistful of pills.
One is for sleeping. Most are for pain – pain in the neck, pain in the back, pain along the spinal cord, deeper pain, shifting pain, pain where the bullet sliced through his side, grazed his spine and landed in his stomach.
He keeps his pills in a clear plastic shoebox. If he followed the prescriptions, he'd be taking 14 pills a day, he says, but he has been cutting back to save money. The pain is constant, and it will probably get worse over time, creeping like a vine along nerves in his back and down his legs.
Castro says he decided to sue to right a wrong.
"They should pay for their mistake," he says. "They should compensate me for their error."
In an interview in his Tucson office, walls decorated with a Mayan print and a vintage movie poster — the 1949 cold war propaganda classic "I married a Communist" — Risner, Castro's lawyer, explains his client's goals.
"It's about money," he says. "That's it."
Castro lost the ability to buy food for his family, send his kids to school. "He's been damaged economically," Risner says.
"In addition, the Border Patrol could do a better job of checking their agents, training them better, actually do things to make them do a better job, where it's safer for the people they encounter. Those are possibilities. But, realistically it's just money."
Castro tried working but almost crashed the dump truck. He has turned to his family for help. "One lends me money, then the other. That is how I go on," he explains. He needs another operation that will cost 100,000 pesos, or around $8,000, he says.
His wife is now the family's provider.
"He was in charge of everything and, well, now there is nothing," she says. "I work, sell cakes, sell clothes in the flea market, clean houses, anything. I move around, bring things, take things up, get things down, everything, everything, everything."
He used to see America as a place of opportunity, worth risks and sacrifices. Would he ever go back?
"No, not anymore. No more, for nothing. Americans do not like us. Even more so the officials (Border Patrol agents). The officials are racists who do not want us there."
Investigative Newsource’s Brad Racino contributed to the reporting and was the photojournalist on this project. Spanish translation by Diana Crofts-Pelayo
Roxana Popescu is a San Diego reporter whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Associated Press, Forbes, Newsweek, San Diego Union-Tribune, Voice of San Diego, Investigative Newsource, and other outlets.