April 10, 2008. Today, Thursday, was the fourth day of the trial. The prosecution began by calling Irene Quijada to the stand. Before today I had known Juan Patricio through a single photograph (taken at Annunciation House shortly before his death) and through generalities—that he was nice, cheerful, so very young when he died. I had heard for years about his death, but I knew very little about his life. Irene testified that her son Juan had lived with her in the town of Puerto Piñazco until he was about twelve years old. Then he was sent to Piaxtla, Sinaloa, to live with his grandmother and attend secondary school. His father, Cesar, sent money for his education and would visit him every June 24—
el día de San Juan. He would see his mother on Mother’s Day, each summer, and at Christmas. At age sixteen he finished school and returned to Puerto Piñazco to work—to seguir adelante, Irene said. He worked in construction earning 1800 pesos a week. He shared part of his earnings with his mother and spent another portion on his younger brothers—bringing them pizzas, toys.
Irene described each photograph that Paco Dominguez, one of her lawyers, displayed on the projector: Juan playing with friends, wearing a bow tie at his school graduation, shown with his sister or nieces or his youngest brother Ricardo. The final picture was one of Juan and his sister Rosario at a dance. In that picture he was nineteen years old. Since his birthday was October 23, the picture can’t have been taken more than a few months before he was killed on February 22.
I know this is hard, said Paco to Irene. But I want you to tell the judge what kind of son Juan Patricio was. The interpreter translated his words into Spanish, then translated Irene’s answer back to English. A perfect son, said Irene. Muy alegre, muy amable…very joyful, very kind. She used to dance with him on the beach, outside, any place. If there was no music he would sing. When he saw her sweeping around the house he’d say Here, give me the broom. If she picked up something heavy he would take it from her. And from a young age, he told her that someday he’d go to the United States and work so that she wouldn’t have to.
After he was killed, Irene’s sister brought Irene the bad news—or at least part of it. She said that they had to go to Mexicali right away, because Juan Patricio was very ill. Fue agarrado en la linea and he had been badly beaten. Irene had not even known Juan was in the United States. She sold a car part to pay for enough gasoline to drive to Mexicali, but then her sister said No—they are bringing him here.
Why bring him here? asked Irene. The best doctors are over in Mexicali.
But they waited in Puerto Piñazco until the middle of the week, when Juan’s body arrived. He was buried in Puerto Piñazco. Some three hundred people came to the funeral.
How did you feel that day? asked Paco.
How can you say? With my soul cut in two…destroyed.
You cried at the funeral?
When did you stop crying?
“I haven’t stopped crying,” said Irene.
I was appalled when the defense lawyer stood up to question Irene. She had been sobbing on the witness stand; we’d had to take a break so she could compose herself. What could the defense possibly ask about? What inconsistencies would they probe for in her grief?
The lawyer asked whether Juan Patricio had worked as a boxer. He had trained a little as a boxer, but never reached that goal, Irene said. The lawyer pointed out that he had worked in construction, so he must have been very strong. Irene said they used mechanical shovels to lift things, so Juan only had to move levers.
Are you taking medication for depression? he asked.
Your daily routine hasn’t really changed since his death, has it?
Everything is pesado now, said Irene.
Would it surprise you that the autopsy found traces of marijuana in Mr. Peraza’s blood? Do you know whether he had any tattoos? Did he have a girlfriend?
Irene answered yes, yes, no. The lawyer said he was finished and Irene stepped down. The judge ordered a short break, during which the women went en masse to the bathroom. It had been an upsetting testimony; even the court interpreter was crying. Irene told me that yes, it had been very hard; but it was the truth. The interpreter told me later it had been hard for her, too. She gets very close to people when she translates for them. I think about that—how although the interpreter is acting in service of the court, and is not on “our side” per se, nor is she quite an impartial observer. Perhaps when you speak for someone else, as she is doing, you cannot help but put yourself in the other’s shoes.
Cesar Peraza was the next witness. He began by stating his name and his date of birth, and it seemed to me he was already beginning to up. He confirmed Irene’s testimony regarding Juan’s childhood—how Cesar had supported Juan at school until Juan went to work in construction. Juan was a very good worker and would sometimes help his father with his taco cart. He would accept no payment from Cesar. When he began to work in construction, he used his first paycheck to buy his little brothers a Nintendo. “He made people love him quickly,” said Cesar through the interpreter.
Late in the afternoon on Saturday, February 22, 2003, Cesar heard a cousin and an aunt yelling for him. He thought they wanted tacos. They came to him and took him by the shoulders and set him down on the sidewalk and told him—and here Cesar broke down and could hardly get the words out—they have killed your son. He felt the earth open. No—no, he said, that can’t be. My son is in Puerto Piñazco. Later he would go to the police station in Mexicali, where pictures of Juan Patricio had been emailed. He confirmed that the dead young man was his son. It was something very hard, he said. Something I hope never happens even to the one who killed my son.
I looked over at Agent VB, who was sitting at the defense table with his lawyers. His head was bowed and he looked at his hands, which moved restlessly in his lap. This couldn’t be easy for him. After cross-examination Cesar was excused, and the plaintiffs rested.
The defense began to present its case after lunch. First they made a motion to have everyone agree that the plaintiffs would not claim pre-death pain and suffering, funeral expenses, or loss of inheritance. Then they called their first witness: Border Patrol agent JG. JG was about a year out of his training period at the time Juan Patricio was shot. On the morning of February 22, 2003, he had been assigned to backup duty. That meant he didn’t park in one place for surveillance but was free to “roll” around El Paso. He was down at the Paso Del Norte port of entry when he heard an agent call on the radio. “Just by the sound of his voice, I knew that something was going on.” He headed over. When he arrived, one marked car was already there. Two other agents were talking in the street. They were soon joined by a third, CD, who ran out from an alley. I noticed that this witness, JG, knew all the names of the agents present and could even explain where each was standing—details none of the other agents who’d testified had been able to remember. It made me wonder whether JG had been recently coached…
When the standoff began, JG drew his own weapon and joined his fellow officers in formation around the subject, who held a pipe. JG testified that Agent R started giving commands alone, while the other agents “kind of backed up.” R was some fifteen feet from the subject, too far away to be struck with the pipe. The subject yelled, I’m not letting you guys take me! Shoot me if you want me! He was taunting and swinging the pipe.
Show us, said the defense lawyer. The defense produced one of their evidence exhibits: a metal pipe some four or five feet long, hollow, wrapped in yellow tape. I had to agree it looked formidable. JG stood up and demonstrated, raising the pipe over his shoulder like a bat and giving it a half-swing forward. He asserted that when faced with Mr. Peraza and that pipe, VB was authorized to use deadly force on the basis of three criteria: means, intent, and opportunity for harm. The defense asked JG why he himself didn’t shoot the subject. JG replied that Agent R was in his line of fire.
Is there anything you could have done to avoid the shooting?
Mr. Peraza wasn’t listening to us…
And you would have shot him if you’d had a clear line of fire?
During cross-examination, Lynne Coil asked again whether JG would have shot Juan Patricio right then, if he’d had a clear shot. JG said yes.
Right away? asked Lynne.
She gave him a copy of his deposition and had him read what he had said when she asked him that question some months ago: I would have needed time to assess—to see if there was anyone behind Mr. Peraza. Lynne went over a few more inconsistencies in the testimony—for example, whether Juan Patricio had lowered the pipe at any time. (JG said no; Agent T yesterday had testified yes.) Then JG was excused, and Agent JGr was summoned.
JGr was still a trainee on February 22, 2003. That morning, he was assigned to city patrol with CD. This meant they were to drive around the city looking for people to pick up. JGr and CD began their morning patrol in west El Paso. Then CD suggested they go to Annunciation House, where he had picked up undocumented people before. When they arrived at Annunciation House they saw a young man exiting the door, and CD said he wanted to question that man. The agents parked and made contact with Mr. Peraza, who told them he was from Mexico. JGr called in a background check. While his attention was elsewhere, the subject took off running. CD followed on foot. JGr got back into his car and began to drive down the block, looking for the subject. He finally met up with his partner on San Antonio Street and radioed for backup. Three more agents, R, T, and JG, arrived at the scene, which eventually became a standoff. JGr did not see VB arrive, and was not aware of him until VB yelled at the subject and the subject charged. But JGr testified that means, motive and intent were all present, authorizing the use of deadly force.
Why didn’t you shoot Mr. Peraza?
Agent VB just reacted faster.
Were you about to shoot?
Was the shooting justified?
After Mr. Peraza was shot, JGr was ordered to go back to Camp Montana and write a memorandum about the incident. He was interviewed by the El Paso police department later that afternoon. He said that he did talk to the other agents about the incident before making his reports, but only about the names of the streets involved. He said, as well, that there was nothing he or VB could have done differently that day to avoid the death of Mr. Peraza.
On cross-examine, Enrique Moreno pointed out that all of the officers in this incident, except for R, were fairly new; two, including JGr, were still on probation. Did JGr know then of Border Patrol’s policy not to work shelters, schools or churches? He did. Did he know that Annunciation House was a shelter? No, he did not. And so it did not seem inappropriate to him that they should patrol by the house or stop an inhabitant of the house for questioning.
Enrique went through the sequence of events. JGr did not see Mr. Peraza swing the pipe. He did not see R, the lead agent, holster his gun at any time, and did not hear R yell “Take your finger off the trigger.” If R had done either of these things, JGr insisted he would have noticed. He didn’t remember whether anyone had made a move to handcuff Mr. Peraza after he’d been shot, but agreed that this would have been totally unnecessary. After the shooting, he testified that he went back to Camp Montana, where the agents who had been at the scene had pizza and Coke in a common room and were given time to work on their memos. They were not segregated. In his memo and his police interview, JGr could not remember any of the pertinent distances—for example the distance between VB and Mr. Peraza.
And so if you don’t remember distances, said Enrique, you can’t really tell us whether the shooting was justified, can you?
I can, sir.
But isn’t distance important?
When you’re deciding whether to kill a man.
Yes, it’s important.
You can’t tell us any of the distances, but you can reach the conclusion?
No further questions.
The final witness of the day was R, the senior Border Patrol agent at the shooting. He was on line watch on the morning of February 22, 2003. He heard trouble on the radio and headed to San Antonio Street. When he arrived, he stopped to talk with JGr, then drove his vehicle further down the street. He saw CD run out into the street followed by a man holding a pipe. R drove his vehicle in between the two men and got out, gun in hand. “Drop the pipe!” he yelled.
Mr. Peraza yelled back, “Ese puto me pegó y le voy a chingar.” R replied, If he hit you we’ll work it out, we’ll tell a supervisor…
Mr. Peraza tapped his forehead and said, “Tírame. Mátame.” Shoot me.
They stood in confrontation for a while, as Mr. Peraza shuffled forward and back and R moved to maintain a safe distance. At one point, R thought He’s going to run. He holstered his gun and moved forward. A moment later he saw Mr. Peraza run at angle away from him. He heard a pop! pop! and the subject went down.
Why didn’t you shoot him? asked the defense lawyer.
I wasn’t in fear of my life.
Did you want it to end like this?
No. I didn’t want him to get shot. I was thinking he looked like one of my sons. I wanted him to put the pipe down and let me arrest him.
Who was in control of this situation?
He was. He could have ended it.
Agent R demonstrated how R fell: first crossing his arms over his chest, then twisting halfway around, lowering himself to one knee, and falling finally face down on the ground.
During cross-examination, Enrique Moreno asked R about his communication with the subject. No matter what question Enrique posed, R rephrased it to terms of compliance: “I wanted him to comply. He wouldn’t comply.” Enrique asked whether he was trying to talk to the subject, or calm him down, or develop a rapport. R said to all these questions, “I was trying to get him to comply.”
“And your plan was not to get anyone hurt or killed?”
“My only thought was to get him to comply.”
Enrique asked about intermediate forms of force, such as OC spray (a kind of pepper spray). R said he didn’t have any OC spray during this incident, but he wouldn’t have used it even if he’d had it.
“It was a deadly encounter. I couldn’t give him an inch.”
Enrique established that R knew nothing about VB’s arrival or actions the scene. And R agreed that one would need to know these things before he could form an opinion about whether the shooting was justifiable. Enrique then spent some time on details. R stated that he did indeed holster his gun at one point, and that he did order the other agents to take their fingers off their triggers. When Mr. Peraza cursed at him, he cursed right back. Enrique showed him a diagram that Sector Evidence Team had drawn of the incident. R compared it to a diagram that he himself had made, and came to the conclusion that SET got things wrong.
At the end of the day, I took Cesar and Irene back to their hotel. They had a lot of coraje. It had been a hard day all around—first their own testimony in the morning, then having to listen to the scene of their son’s death recounted over and over in the afternoon. There were inconsistencies between each agent’s version of events—perhaps what you’d expect from eyewitness accounts of such a tense and rapid sequence of events. Even so, it was enough to make Cesar and Irene furious with the untruths that seemed to have been told in court that day.
For my part, I’d found the agents’ testimony even more difficult to hear than the parents’. I was prepared for Cesar and Irene; I knew they would be emotional, that their testimony would brim with grief and that I would grieve along with them. But I wasn’t ready to hear Border Patrol’s take on the shooting. It wasn’t the details that troubled me, or the inconsistencies; it was rather the final question that the defense lawyer asked each witness. Each agent swore to the court that there was nothing he, or any other agent, could have done to prevent Juan Patricio’s death. Each of them swore that it was Juan Patricio, not the Border Patrol, who chose to end things with a shooting. Each of them swore that the shooting was justified, and that the shooter acted in complete accordance with his training.
And I thought: Why the hell don’t you get some new training?
It could be that the agents were simply closing ranks, protecting one of their own. But I could believe that they believed what they said: that Juan Patricio’s shooting was inevitable, and that as far as they were concerned they had no choice in the matter. These officers are trained to think in terms of compliance, of getting a subject to submit to their commands. They are drilled in the use of deadly force. They are given the task of rounding up the undocumented; they are given weapons; then they are turned loose. And suddenly the tragedy, the scope of the problem, becomes much larger than the death of one young man at the hands of one inexperienced, trigger-happy agent. As long as we as a society train and arm the Border Patrol as we do, perhaps we should not be surprised when the simple detention of an undocumented person ends in deadly violence. And maybe we as a society are partly to blame for the events that unfolded on February 22, 2003. And maybe this is why I found today’s testimony so very disturbing: I am a citizen of this country, and I cannot help but feel that it was I, at least in some measure, who shot Juan Patricio.