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John Sevigny: Texas thugs

January 20, 2009

John Sevigny

Despite my objections to US immigration policies, the Border Patrol is a law enforcement agency with a fine reputation, even among some of the undocumented immigrants agents detain. As a journalist in Brownsville and Laredo in the late 1990s, two small cities on the Texas-Mexico border, I spent many nights riding around with Border Patrol agents, taking pictures at highway checkpoints, and interviewing people from Mexico and Central America who had been apprehended trying to get to the United States. I never heard a complaint, never witnessed any abuse.

Border Patrol agents, unlike soldiers or even some big city police officers, are given “people skills” training in order to extend better treatment to immigrants apprehended in the desert and along the Rio Grande. Since the agency was officially launched in 1924, scandals have been few and far between.

All of which makes President George W. Bush’s decision to commute the prison sentences of two Border Patrol agents who shot an unarmed drug smuggler in the buttocks as he ran away and tried to cover up the shooting very disturbing. Like any organization, there are a few bad apples in the US Border Patrol. Ignacio Ramos and Jose Ignacio Campeon, each sentenced to more than 10 years in prison, were two of them.

In what may turn out to be his final, newsworthy act as President, Bush: disrespected the federal jurors who convicted Ramos and Compean of assault with serious bodily injury, assault with a deadly weapon, discharge of a firearm in relation to a crime of violence, a civil-rights charge and obstruction of justice for trying to cover up the shooting; sent a message to Border Patrol agents that shooting pursuing suspects and trying to cover up your actions is acceptable; and sent a message of punishment to federal prosecutors responsible for the dirty job of “going after one of their own.”

Ramos and Compean became a nationwide cause, particularly among Conservatives who saw them as heroes doing what had to be done to protect the border. They gathered 400,000 signatures demanding the agents’ freedom, and soon, more than 40 state and federal lawmakers from both parties joined them in their struggle.

But it’s worth recalling what happened that cold, February night in 2005.

According to a report by the Department of Homeland Security published almost two years later, Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila, a Mexican national, entered the United States illegally to drive a van loaded with more than 700 pounds of marijuana to a stash house near El Paso, Texas.

The two agents spotted Aldrete-Davila, tried to stop the van, and the suspect fled — first in the vehicle, and then on foot after “Compean tried to hit him in the head with the butt of a shotgun,” the redacted report reads in part.

“… both shot at Aldrete-Davila with their duty pistols as he ran on foot back to Mexico with Ramos hitting Aldrete-Davila once in the buttocks.”

Aldrete-Davila got away, limping back across the Mexican line.

Even the Department of Homeland Security, the umbrella organization that includes the border patrol, alleged that the two agents tried to cover up the shooting.

“Compean and Ramos did not report the shooting as required by BP regulations and instead tried to cover up the crime scene by removing the spent shell casings that were ejected from their pistols …” according to the report.

The two were later arrested and “Compean stated that his intent was to ‘kill’ Aldrete-Davila because he thought he had a gun though Compean later recanted his statement by stating that he was never really certain …” the report reads.

In one of the most heavily redacted sections of the DHS report, it is revealed that one of the two agents committed some kind of violation. The agent’s name is not revealed, but as punishment, he was ordered to undergo anger management classes.

According to the indictment handed down against the two men, Compean fired at Aldrete-Davila as many as 12 times.

Aldrete-Davila, meanwhile, was no boy scout. He confessed to trying to run the 700 pounds of marijuana into the United States in February 2005, and received immunity from federal prosecutors in exchange for cooperating in the prosecution of the two Border Patrol agents. But the smuggler didn’t wise up. Eight months later, he was nabbed at an international bridge with 1,000 pounds of marijuana. He is currently serving prison time for the second load.

Running pot into a country that consumes more of it than any other nation on earth is a serious crime under the law. Tampering with crime scene evidence by federal law enforcement officers is arguably a far greater threat to our society.

To state it as a parable: Three men who would be criminals met in the West Texas desert one night and all were convicted for what they were to do. Two of them had their sentences commuted by president George W. Bush, who showed his disregard for the law again, hopefully for the last time.

John Sevigny is a photographer and writer who was born in Miami and lives and works in Mexico. He is a former correspondent for the Associated Press, and for EFE News, the official information agency of the Spanish government. He has published photographs and articles in the Houston Chronicle, the San Antonio Express-News, the Dallas Morning News, and many other newspapers and magazines. As a fine art photographer, he has participated in solo and group exhibitions in Florida, California, Louisiana, New York, Minnesota and Illinois in the United States, and in Monterrey, Saltillo, and Zacatecas in Mexico. His has a blog called Gone City.

To read more blog entries from John Sevigny and others at GUERNICA click HERE .

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