Wednesday, June 28, 2006 | More than a million trips north across the U.S.-Mexico border each year end in disappointment. Hundreds end in dehydration and death in remote deserts and mountains. One ended last month in a different kind of death when federal agents shot an alleged human trafficker in the neck after a high-speed chase in rush-hour traffic within steps of the border.
That trip started on the U.S. side of the border with the ring of Oscar Abraham Garcia Barros’ phone. It would be one of the last calls of his life. The voice on the other end instructed him to drive his black Dodge Durango to a dusty, open field off of Otay Mesa Road, where he was to pick up a group of four Mexican migrants who’d clandestinely crossed into the United States.
Garcia’s companion, Jose Adolfo Gonzalez Fabian had just arrived at Garcia’s house after being smuggled into the country when the phone rang. There, he was to bathe and change clothes.
“Vamonos pa’ arriba por un mandado,” Garcia said after hanging up the phone, telling Gonzalez they were going to run an errand, according to Gonzalez’s statements to agents.
By the time their errand was over, Garcia had been shot dead by Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection agents in a frantic attempt to escape to Mexico on Interstate 5. Gonzalez would later be charged with smuggling illegal immigrants, and an unnamed minor would also face related charges. Two of the undocumented immigrants would be held as witnesses; one was sent back to the other side of the border.
The shooting couldn’t have come at a more sensitive time in the nation’s immigration debate, one that rings from the border to the halls of Congress down to small towns on both sides of the border. Indeed, that very day President Bush himself stood at the border in Yuma, Ariz. to tout his plan to put 6,000 National Guard reservists at the border. And on the other side of the border, his counterpart, Mexican President Vicente Fox, surprised Tijuana with a visit.
As the nation has been focused on the statistics and finer legal points of such a powerful debate, an account of the hours before the May 18 border shooting – pieced together through court documents, sworn statements and interviews – provides a window into violence and chaos that can quickly accompany a trip through the border’s thriving black market of human trafficking.
Crossing the Divide
The four immigrants – two from the state of Jalisco, two from Baja California – had already traversed their way across the border onto U.S. soil when Garcia got the call. The juvenile guided them to the waiting spot in Otay Mesa, according to his statement court documents. They’d made arrangements in Tijuana to be picked up once they reached the United States, paying between $1,100 and $2,300 to be shuttled to various parts of California.
All four of the immigrants had previous histories with the Border Patrol, said Agent Damon Foreman, a senior patrol agent and public information officer. The Border Patrol denied requests for access to these records.
Garcia and Gonzalez, a somewhat husky young man with a goatee, sharp facial features and two young daughters, traveled to an uninhabited field about 2 miles northeast of the Otay Mesa border crossing that a Border Patrol agent said is often used by smugglers because of its easy access to roads.
The immigrants had waited for about three or four hours. When the sports utility vehicle arrived, the four piled in the back. Garcia drove off with Gonzalez in the passenger seat and the four new passengers lying down in the back.
Then, at about 3:10 p.m., the Border Patrol received a tip that someone had loaded a group of suspected undocumented immigrants. The call went out on Border Patrol dispatch and agents soon fell in behind the Durango as it cruised westbound on State Route 905.
Inside the car, Garcia and Gonzalez realized they were being followed. The car picked up pace. A voice came through a radio inside of the car, repeatedly telling the driver to step on it, according to Gonzalez’ testimony.
They then reached the end of SR-905 and had a decision to make: go north or south on Interstate 5. Garcia wasn’t sure. Gonzalez, who gave his statement to Border Patrol after the incident without a lawyer present, said in court documents that he told Garcia to go south, toward Mexico. He then told Garcia to stop so the passengers could try to escape on foot, according to court documents.
Border Patrol agents radioed ahead to border and customs agents, said Lt. Kevin Rooney of the San Diego Police Department, which investigated the incident because it took place within city limits.
As Garcia continued toward the border crossing, border and customs agents dressed in green and blue uniforms swarmed Interstate 5. They brought traffic to a halt, fanning out across the interstate and waving their arms in the air, Rooney said.
Garcia tried to wedge through the stopped cars, according to court filings. He eventually ended up on the far west side of the interstate, trying to inch his way through toward Mexico, Rooney said.
However, he was blocked on the thin shoulder of the interstate. Two officers stood in front of the vehicle, according to Gonzalez’s account in court papers. Others swarmed along the sides.
An agent knocked on the window, and then tried to open the driver’s door, which appeared to be locked. The agent pulled out an expandable baton and smashed Garcia’s window, Rooney said.
It’s at that point that stories about what happened next diverge.
But one thing is clear: the car moved forward and agents shot and killed the driver, Garcia. Those in the car said that there was a hole in Garcia’s neck and blood came out of his mouth, neck and ear.
Gonzalez told the Border Patrol that Garcia placed his hands in the air when agents approached the car, according to court papers. Gonzalez then looked out the passenger side window and felt the car move forward. He said Garcia’s foot must have slipped off of the brake, according to the documents
The juvenile, who later reached an agreement with prosecutors before his trial was to begin, told a different story from his vantage point in the back seat. He told the Border Patrol that Gonzalez told Garcia “Go, go, go!” when agents had stopped the car.
He said he saw Garcia put the Durango “into gear by shifting the lever in a downward motion.”
“The driver accelerated very quickly and there were a number of agents standing near the left front quarter panel and in front of the vehicle,” Rooney, the homicide lieutenant said. “And when the suspect accelerated forward two agents fired. One was from border patrol and one was from customs protection.”
The juvenile said he heard one gunshot. He then saw Garcia bleeding from the ear.
The specifics of what happened to the agents when the car moved forward have changed slightly since the incident. Originally, it was reported that Garcia’s car pinned one of the agents against another car. Then, it was reported that the car pushed agents into a lane of slow-moving traffic.
Rooney said agents were in danger of getting crushed between Garcia’s Durango and another car stopped in traffic. He said some of the 25 witnesses he’s interviewed have said they were surprised that an officer wasn’t run over by the Durango.
The Mexican Consulate in San Diego immediately called for an investigation into the incident, and will rely on the standard agency protocol to sort out whether the killing of Garcia was justified.
The local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has criticized the federal agents for putting themselves in front of a vehicle. The Border Patrol refused to provide a copy of their use-of-force guidelines. The SDPD’s guidelines read: “Officers shall not knowingly position themselves in the path of a moving vehicle.”
“It seems to me that they ended up standing in front of the vehicle after it came it a stop,” Rooney said. “However, having said that, it does appear that agents moved out in front of the lanes in order to stop traffic in order to stop the vehicle in question.”
Although the federal agents fired the fatal shots, San Diego Police Department conducted the investigation. Rooney said the report is a factual account of what transpired and makes no judgment whether agents broke the law or their department’s protocol. The names of the involved agents have not been released.
That report will be forwarded to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which will judge if the agents acted properly. Rooney said he is waiting for the U.S. Attorney’s Office to specify if it wants the report delivered verbally or simply as a document.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney declined to comment on the investigation and whether its results will be made public.
Chris Bauder, president of the National Border Patrol Council Local 1613, said any suggestions that the agents wrongfully shot an unarmed man are flat out wrong.
“This guy was using his vehicle as a weapon, and we don’t have to wait for somebody to get injured to escalate the use of force. When you’ve got a vehicle and the person’s refusing to stop the vehicle, and they’re going to run someone over, there’s really no other option for the officers at that point,” he said.