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BP agent pleads not guilty to murder in 2012 cross-border shooting

The U.S. Border Patrol agent charged with murdering a Mexican teenager in a 2012 cross-border shooting pleaded not guilty in federal court on Friday. 

Agent Lonnie Ray Swartz pleaded not guilty to second degree murder for his role in the October 10, 2012, shooting of Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez.

About 25 people demonstrated outside the Evo A. DeConcini U.S. Courthouse in downtown Tucson. The held signs, including a poster showing the faces nearly a dozen people who have been killed by Border Patrol.

Jury selection is set to begin next month, with trial proceedings scheduled to start Nov. 17 before U.S. District Court Judge Raner Collins.

Swart was released without bail.

Outside the courthouse Friday afternoon, ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt said that the family was grateful to the Justice Department.

"It's a difficult situation," Gelernt said. "Jose Antonio's mother, Araceli, has wanted to see the man who killed her son, but it was also very emotional for her."

Gelernt is working with the family on a civil suit against Swartz.

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"This is the first time we've seen the agent," said the family's attorney, Luis Parra, who along with court observers and family saw Swartz when he stood up and spoke to the judge. 

As part of the pretrail agreement, Swartz will turn over his handgun.

"We're law enforcement officers, we want justice. We don't want a witch hunt, " said Art Del Cueto, president of Local 2544, the BP union that covers the Tucson Sector.

On Sept. 23, Swartz was indicted after a grand jury found probable cause to charge him in the incident.

In a single page of the indictment, stamped "Redacted for public disclosure," the grand jury wrote that Swartz "did with malice aforethought, and while armed with a P2000 semi-automatic pistol, unlawfully kill" Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez.

Border Patrol officials said that Swartz fired into Mexico in response to a hail of rocks aimed at agents and a Nogales police officer, who were attempting to stop a group of drug smugglers near the fence dividing the cities of Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora. 

At some point, Swartz fired through the border fence and hit Elena Rodriguez approximately 10 times, most of the bullets striking him in the back. The boy died on the sidewalk of Calle Internacional, just four blocks from his home. 

The federal government kept the identify of the Border Patrol agent responsible under wraps until November 2014, when  Judge Collins ordered the government to disclose the agent's name.  

"The public's interest in this case outweighs defendant's need for anonymity," Collins wrote. 

The disclosure was part of a civil rights lawsuit filed against the agency last year by Elena Rodriguez's family currently pending in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. In July, Collins ruled that while the boy was in Mexico, Swartz can still be sued for violating the Elena Rodriguez's constitutional rights. 

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The incident is one of a handful of fatal border shootings that remain under review by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In June, a draft report by the agency noted significant problems in how the agency policies itself in the wake of deadly use-of-force incidents. Earlier this year, the agency said it had reviewed 67 shooting incidents that killed 19 people and agents were resolved in all but a handful of cases. 

The Justice Department is reviewing two other cases. 

The union representing Border Patrol agents criticized the charge against Swartz in a post on the union's website. 

"It is unfortunate that after three years and after being investigated by multiple local, state and federal agencies and then returned to the field to work, Agent Lonnie Swartz is now facing criminal charges," Local 2544 of the National Border Patrol Council said in a statement. "

"Sadly, our agents and all law enforcement officers operate in a world of political agendas and armchair quarterbacking. But our jobs are dangerous and the decisions we make every day determine if we will return home safely to our families," the union said. "We ask the public to withhold judgment about Agent Swartz while the legal process unfolds."

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Araceli Rodriguez speaks to reporters just outside the courthouse after the arraignment of Lonnie Swartz, a Border Patrol agent accused of murdering her son, Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, in a 2012 cross-border shooting.

Anniversary mass and procession

On Saturday, residents of Nogales, Sonora will hold a silent procession marking the third anniversary of Elena Rodriguez's death. The mass will begin at 5:30 p.m. at the Purisima Concepcion Catholic Church in Nogales, Sonora and then participants will walk to Calle Internacional where Elena Rodriguez died for a vigil beginning at 6:30 p.m.