San Antonio Express by Jason Buch
LAREDO — A vague policy allowed Border Patrol agents to use deadly force to shoot an unarmed Mexican man on the banks of the Rio Grande two years ago, the man's family alleged in a lawsuit Wednesday.
The wife and daughters of Guillermo Arevalo Pedraza are suing the U.S. government, the agent they say shot Arevalo and the agent's supervisors for $40 million.
[The family of Guillermo Arevalo Pedraza appears at a news conference in Laredo announcing the suit. From left are Priscilla Arevalo Lam, 11; Mariana Arevalo Lam, 10; and Nora Isabel Lam, 27.]
They claim a discriminatory policy allowed agents to shoot at rock throwers who didn't pose a serious threat.
Arevalo's wife, Nora Isabel Lam, said Wednesday no one was throwing rocks the day Arevalo was shot while the family was having a birthday party in a Nuevo Laredo park.
When Arevalo was shot in September 2012, the Border Patrol said agents in a boat were responding to rock throwers.
An agency spokeswoman said she couldn't comment on pending litigation or make the agents listed as defendants available for interviews.
The union representing Border Patrol agents has said rock-throwing is a very real threat to their lives. In the past year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the branch of the Homeland Security Department that oversees the Border Patrol, has taken steps to be more transparent about its policies and to limit when agents use deadly force.
The old policies, however, gave agents broad authority to shoot into Mexico, attorney Bob Hilliard said.
"Under the Rocking Policy, Border Patrol agents shot to kill Mexican nationals who allegedly threw rocks at them, regardless of whether the alleged rock-throwing posed an imminent risk of death or serious injury ... and regardless of whether other, nonlethal means were available to avert any such risk," the lawsuit reads.
Hilliard said federal prosecutors are conducting a grand jury investigation of the shooting.
Arevalo and his family were celebrating the birthdays of Lam and their two daughters on Sept. 3, 2012, when they saw agents in a boat trying to detain someone swimming from the U.S. to Mexico, the lawsuit states. In an interview, Lam said the agents were using the boat to try to drown the swimmer and people on the bank were yelling at them to stop.
As the party began to move away from the riverbank, Lam said, she heard gunshots.
"That's when I saw my husband on the ground", she said.
The Border Patrol boat sped off, she said.
A video posted on YouTube shows the scene before and after the shooting, with children on the riverbank near Arevalo's body. It doesn't show anyone throwing rocks, but the video doesn't show the entire riverbank and seems to skip a period right before the shooting.
The lawsuit lists as defendants Agent Christopher Boatwright, who Hilliard alleges shot Arevalo, and his supervisors, going all the way to David Aguilar, at the time the head of CBP, and then Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
Neither Napolitano nor Aguilar responded to requests for comment.
The lawsuit also cites an interview published earlier this month by the Center for Investigative Reporting with former CBP assistant commissioner for internal affairs James F. Tomsheck, who claimed the agency cut corners during a hiring spree after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, covered up corruption and tried to justify fatal shootings.
It comes after CBP in May released a report on its use of force policy that it had commissioned by the Police Executive Research Forum. The report recommended that agents be trained to retreat from rock throwers, and to only fire when they're in serious danger.