Death at the Border

I’ve been reflecting a lot about death these autumn days. My mother died nine years ago this week, and so my thoughts have turned to family, mortality, our children and the grandchildren. I’ve contemplated the foolish things I’ve done as a child and how I’ve somehow gotten away with it unscathed. Growing up in Chicago, my brothers and I used to throw snowballs at passing cars. It never occurred to me that I was endangering the driver. Consequences were not hard-wired into my psyche. Once I was caught and reprimanded by a police officer and was taken home by the scruff of my neck. I never forgot it.

And let’s not forget about all the shenanigans of the 60’s. Thankfully my parents never knew half of what I did growing up. Somehow I made it to adulthood all in one piece.

My point is this:  kids do stupid things.

Flowers for graves at Dia de los Muertos

 I have created a Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) altar in our home with photos of deceased parents and pets, and also small gifts that migrants have given me this past year. When the candles are lit at my altar, I think about the tenuous and precious nature of life. I am reminded of this each week in my talks with the migrants at the comedor. The fact is, some of them might not make it to their destination in the U.S. Some may die trying to reach their American Dream.  The risks are great, and the stakes are high.

An altar for Dia de los Muertos

Masks and skeletons are everywhere these October days. The borderlands are preparing for Dia de los Muertos celebrations, and the stores are full of the special foods and pan dulce that commemorate this time of remembrance. In Mexico the Day of the Dead pays homage to those that have died with stories, songs, marigold bouquets and favorite foods. Often families will picnic at the grave sites. They spend the night in the cemeteries remembering a loved one and perhaps passing a bottle of tequila in a toast to a life well lived. There is guitar music and soft laughter around the family plot. Ghosts are invited to the table, rather than shunned and feared.

Marigolds to welcome the dead

Less than two weeks ago death tragically came to a sixteen year old boy in Nogales, Mexico. Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez was shot and killed by a Border Patrol agent while on the Mexican side of the wall. The agent was on the American side and claimed that the boy was throwing rocks over the wall to the U.S. side, presenting a deadly threat.  There was a probable drug smuggling operation taking place and federal agents were responding to the criminal activity.  The boy’s grandmother says that the boy was on his way home after visiting his girlfriend. The incident occurred after 11 PM and the boy was three blocks from his home in Nogales. There were seven bullets found in his body. A Mexican official stated that the teen had been shot in the back. The drug deal had gone awry, and this was the reason for the rock-throwing and subsequent mayhem.

A wall at a border creates an emotional response. It is a visual affront, a kick in the butt. It means we are definitely not on the same page. You are over there and different; I am over here and want some control over who comes and goes. In fact, I’m afraid of you over there. When most people see a fence, they want to peek over and see what is on the other side. Then run on home to their own safe corner of the world.

Samaritans at the killing site

Nogales police officers indicated in their report that there were rocks being tossed over the wall, but could not verify if Jose was one of the rock throwers. The federal Border Patrol agents stated that two men were seen climbing the wall into Mexico with packs on their backs. Another report stated that packs had been dropped on the U.S. side and the men were climbing over the wall back into Mexico.  Reports vary;  facts are muddy.  When Border Patrol agents responded to the situation, several people on the Mexican side began to throw rocks over the wall.

The question is:  was Jose one of the rock throwers, or was he innocently caught in the crossfire of this tragic border incident?

And more importantly, does lobbing rocks over a fence justify the use of bullets?  I am told that there were surveillance video cameras recording these events. A detailed report including video footage has not been released. Understandably, the citizens of Nogales, Mexico are angry and in mourning for this loss of life.

A few days ago several of my Samaritan colleagues and I walked across the border into Mexico to see first hand where this tragedy took place. A couple of Nogales residents led us to the spot on the sidewalk and the bullet-ridden building where Jose took that fateful last walk. What we saw posed a lot of questions.

Bullet holes near the border wall

At the shooting site the border wall sits on a very high embankment of approximately 25 feet, with the wall extending another 15 to 20 feet above it. A rock thrower would have to lob a rock 40 or more feet into the air to clear the wall. This was not a line drive aimed at someone’s head. This was a rock tossed in a long arc over a very high embankment and girded steel wall. It would be extremely difficult to see through the fence in the dark, and then somehow accurately throw a rock 40 feet in the air at a person on the other side.

Site of rock throwing

The metal slats of the wall are 4 inches apart. The Border Patrol agent would have to guide his pistol or rifle through these slats, so visibility and aiming proficiency would be limited. Plus, it was after 11 PM at night on a dark street. Seven bullet holes were visible in the stucco wall of a small business office and were circled with a red marker. Seven bullets were in Jose’s body. A Mexican resident in the neighborhood pointed to the place on the sidewalk where Jose died in front of the office building. My Samaritan friends and I stood there quietly for several minutes trying to figure out the bullets, the trajectory, the rock toss, how many shooters, and how to aim a gun through those slats. We looked up toward the wall on the U.S. side and saw a video camera perched on a tall tower recording our presence as we pondered what had happened here.  Somewhere there is a video of this whole tragedy.

On the Nogales border there have been five incidents since 2010 of a Border Patrol agent firing bullets or pepper balls at rock throwers. In one shooting a 17 year old boy, Ramses Barron Torres, was killed from a gunshot wound in January, 2011, after another rock throwing incident.  Since 2010 fifteen civilians, mostly Mexicans, have been killed in confrontations on the U.S./Mexico border by Border Patrol agents.

Ricardo and the bullet holes

I do not question the need of federal agents to protect themselves when confronting armed drug and human smugglers. Sometimes a rock can be a deadly missile. Indeed the Border Patrol Union Statement, “Rock Assaults are Deadly Force” reads:

Rocks are weapons and constitute deadly force. If an agent is confronted with deadly force they will respond in kind. No agent wants to have to shoot another human being, but when an agent is assaulted and fears for his life then his hand is forced.”

breakfast at the comedor

There are non-lethal approaches that law enforcement has used over the years, effectively dispersing unruly crowds throwing rocks and bottles. Police have used pepper-ball launchers successfully in Occupy protests in the U.S. in the past year without severe injuries or fatalities on either side. In May, 2011, a Border Patrol agent in Nogales used pepper-ball launchers to seize drugs without injuries. There are ways to de-escalate situations and tamp down the adrenaline.

Bullets should be the last resort.

I have hesitated writing about the tragedy of Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez because I do not have all the facts. The newspaper articles have been sketchy without an official report from the Border Patrol. Visiting the site where Jose died has haunted me. It looked like the boy might have been running away. He was retreating. Why was he shot in the back? Where are the facts?

Comforting a man separated from his family at the comedor

Why should I care?

Well, I live here in the borderlands and I am profoundly disenchanted with our war on drugs which is at the root of this violence.  Guns and a military presence have cost too many lives and billions of dollars.   Mexico is our neighbor to the south. Instead of being friendly, amicable neighbors, with maybe a few requisite political tensions and cultural differences, our relationship is now dominated completely by the logic of war.  During the three Presidential Debates these past weeks, there was no discussion of our relationship with Latin America, no discourse on the war on drugs, no mention of the humanitarian crisis at the border, and the immigration issue was never brought up. I am still shaking my head in disbelief about that. Yet in Mexico 50,000 people have died in the past decade over a drug war that has done very little to stop drug trafficking. It is a lucrative business. In fact, U.S. consumption of illegal drugs has gone up.

And this week at the comedor there were 180 migrants trying to figure out how to survive one day at a time. These issues are just too big to ignore.

We have two options in situations like this.

We can either turn away from what feels threatening and uncertain, or we can turn into it and ask what can be done, and hopefully find others who are asking the same questions.

And my first question is, what really happened to Jose on the night of Oct. 10, 2012 at the Nogales border?

My second question is, when will we stop thinking that the militarization of the border is keeping us safe? 

If enough people work together, there are peaceful solutions to this deadly stalemate.  I believe that.

The Green Valley Samaritans is an all-volunteer organization of mostly renegade senior citizens who are passionate about border issues and immigration.  Check out their website at:

The Santa Cruz Community Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to impacting public policy affecting the borderlands, both in the U.S. and Mexico.  The Director, Bob Phillips, can be reached at:

I am a member of both groups and enthusiastically endorse their efforts.

~ by Peg Bowden on October 26, 2012.

9 Responses to “Death at the Border”

  1. Peg,
    I went to Nogales today with a friend. We visited the shooting site again. Still, I could not find any rocks to be thrown. The bushes at the base of the wall would be very difficult to clear with a rock. Unless the Mexican kid had a gun, this is murder.


  2. Your altar is beautiful.

    I, too, am suspicious of that story. I have an inkling that the video evidence would show something that deviates. Of what, we can’t be certain… but there are some elements that just aren’t adding up. Throwing rocks just sounds… ugh. It sounds like a poor excuse to kill a human being.

    It’s too bad and too tragic. I hope his family and the community can find some peace.

  3. Peg,

    A wonderful and deeply troubling story, told in the simplest of terms, unembellished, stark truth.

    Mort Rosenblum (check out Mort’s amazing site with some of the best journalism on the planet)

  4. Peg, this is tragic. Thank you for telling us this story. The drug war is something many Americans do not understand. When I lived in Colombia very few of my friends and family understood that US parties funded drug cultivation, distribution and war – apart from those who bought the drug to distribute or use. Then, of course the US Federal Gov’t funded stopping the cultivation and distribution, and military actions. It’s a crazy game. I hope we can learn to live without a fence, without guns, without fear.

  5. Dear Peg,

    Thanks for this thoughtful post and continuing to bring news that I would not otherwise here. Most of the news we hear just activates agitation and is not that important. What you share is. I am sorry you do not have a column in all our major news outlets.



  6. John Anthony Sedgwick wrote:

    Thank you Peg for your gentle and oh so sad ruminations on the death of the young man from across the line.
    I do believe that remembering and asking questions will eventually cause our national policy of fear to change. How sad that our government hides in national security and that the construction of a wall, the symbol of dictatorship, has replaced the statue of liberty as the image of our nation.
    Tony Sedgwick

  7. Peg: Your ability to capitulate facts, paradox, as well as humanize the border is great journalism. Our political leaders from representative to Oval Office have neither courage nor willingness to really affirm the extent of the drug mafia in the U.S. To hear of this teen’s death should be a call to arms, a treaty to stop the violence right at our own border! What have we all become?!

  8. The unidentified male started throwing rocks over the border fence from Mexico as Border Patrol agents were trying to apprehend two men on the US side of the border, according to Lt. Carlos Jimenez, a spokesperson for the Nogales, AZ Police Department.

  9. I was so touched by this story having lost my own mother last year. And to think of the families looking only for that connection during the holidays. Have we no mercy? have we no bounty? have we no justice?

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