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Border Patrol under scrutiny for deadly force

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012 12:14 p.m. CST • Updated: Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012 12:15 p.m. CST

NOGALES, Ariz. (AP) — A pair of Mexican drug smugglers in camouflage pants, bundles of marijuana strapped to their backs, scaled a 25 foot-high fence in the middle of the night, slipped quietly into the United States and dashed into the darkness.

U.S. Border Patrol agents and local police gave chase on foot — from bushes to behind homes, then back to the fence.

The conflict escalated. Authorities say they were being pelted with rocks. One agent responded by aiming a gun into Mexico and firing multiple shots at the assailant, killing a 16-year-old boy whose family says was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The Oct. 10 shooting has prompted renewed outcry over the Border Patrol’s use-of-force policies and angered human rights activists and Mexican officials who believe the incident has become part of a disturbing trend along the border — gunning down rock-throwers rather than using non-lethal weapons.

The Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General has launched a probe of the agency’s policies, the first such broad look at the tactics of an organization with 18,500 agents deployed to the Southwest region alone. The Mexican government has pleaded with the U.S. to change its ways. And the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has questioned the excessive use of force by Border Patrol.

At least 16 people have been killed by agents along the Mexico border since 2010, eight in cases where federal authorities said they were being attacked with rocks, said Vicki Gaubeca, director of the ACLU’s Regional Center for Border Rights in Las Cruces, N.M.

The Border Patrol says sometimes lethal force is necessary: Its agents were assaulted with rocks 249 times in the 2012 fiscal year, causing injuries ranging from minor abrasions to major head contusions.

Still, Gaubeca balks at what she and others deem the unequal “use of force to use a bullet against a rock.”

“There has not been a single death of a Border Patrol agent caused by a rock,” she said. “Why aren’t they doing something to protect their agents, like giving them helmets and shields?”

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