A U.S. Border Patrol agent has been indicted and charged for the first time ever with murder in the fatal shooting of an unarmed Mexican teen along the Arizona-Mexico border.
A federal grand jury in Tucson handed down the indictment on Wednesday, charging Lonnie Ray Swartz with second-degree murder in the death of 16-year-old Mexican national, Antonio Elena Rodriguez.
The shooting occurred in 2012 across both sides of the border that divides the two sister cities of Nogales. Border Patrol has said agents swarmed the fenced area in response to reports of drug smuggling. They believed Elena Rodriguez was among a group of teens who were throwing rocks at agents, potentially endangering their lives. At that point, Swartz opened fire.
According to the autopsy reports, Elena Rodriguez was shot at least eight times. All but one bullet struck him in the back.
Elena Rodriguez’s family claims that at the time of the shooting, the teen was simply walking to his home four blocks away. The ACLU has since filed a federal civil lawsuit on behalf of his family, arguing that the agent used excessive force when he opened fire.
“The Elena Rodriguez Family is grateful to the DOJ [Department of Justice] for this first step in the pursuit of justice, and remain steadfast in their resolve to seek full transparency from the U.S. Border Patrol on behalf of Jose Antonio,” Luis Parra, the attorney representing Elena Rodriguez’s mother, told the Associated Press.
Swartz’s attorney, Sean Chapman, told The Huffington Post that his client plans to plead not guilty and fight the charges.
The fatal shooting has shined a damning spotlight on how Border Patrol has handled cases involving excessive use of force along the border. A scathing report released last year by the nonprofit group Police Executive Research Fund found a stunning lack of diligence in the agency’s investigations. Of the 67 shooting incidents the group examined, 19 were fatal.
Border Patrol officials have since implemented new reforms in the face of sharp criticism. The agency was only granted the authority to investigate its own officers for criminal misconduct a year ago. But in the last decade, the agency has never taken disciplinary action against agents accused of using excessive force — even in the cases that were fatal.