Tracking fatal encounters with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol

"We still are hurting and will not stop looking for justice because this is the only way we can have peace in our hearts..for Tonito [Antonio] but especially to ensure that others will not be killed and families do not have to feel the pain that we are going through." — Taide Elena and Araceli Rodríguez, mother and grandmother.

Ten years ago, on October 10, 2022, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent Lonnie Swartz killed José Antonio Elena Rodríguez. Ten of the sixteen shots fired from Swartz's weapon entered Rodríguez's sixteen-year-old body from behind, puncturing his heart and lungs. Swartz claimed self-defense and felt threatened because he alleged drug smugglers had been throwing rocks across the 30-foot border wall. Swartz was acquitted of second-degree murder by a Tucson jury in 2018. The jury deadlocked on lesser charges.

In a 2018 Guardian report, Rory Carroll wrote, "Watchdogs and activists condemned the result. "Today's verdict demonstrates the persistent obstacles to accountability in Border Patrol that remain, particularly when it comes to use of force," said the Kino Border Initiative, an advocacy group. It cited six other people killed on Mexican soil by Border Patrol agents. "All of those who are responsible for these deaths are free from punishment, and none of the victims nor their family members have ever been afforded a path to justice."

As reported by Human Rights Watch, after the Swartz acquittal, "A federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of José Antonio's mother, Araceli Rodriguez, resulted in a federal appeals court ruling that José Antonio had a constitutional right not to be shot at in Mexico from US soil. Human Rights Watch filed an amicus brief in the case. However, that ruling was subsequently contradicted by a US Supreme Court decision that made the Rodriguez family to pause their quest for justice in US courts."

On Sunday, October 9, 2022, the family of Rodríguez gathered with Tucson and Nogales—Arizona and Mexico—community organizations to commemorate José's life and shed light on the ongoing abuses by the CPB.

Not available when Rodríguez was shot to death, the "Southern Border Communities Coalition" developed the "Fatal Encounters with U.S. Customs and Border Protection" database to track violent encounters and deaths. Formed in March 2011, the Southern Border Communities Coalition brings together 60 organizations from San Diego, CA, to El Paso and Brownsville, TX.

"SBCC has tracked these deaths based on media coverage and press releases from CBP at the time of these incidents. Since January 2010, over 230 people have died as the result of an encounter with a CBP agent. Many more have been brutalized, in some cases causing life-altering injuries. These deaths are an undercount. According to a 2020 report from the Government Accountability Office, CBP does not have reliable information on deaths and has not consistently reported death-related information to Congress."

For reporting on the Border Patrol Cover-up units, click here. For a book discussion for historical context, see Migra!: A History of the US Border Patrol.