In El Paso, Texas, two former U.S. Border Patrol agents reported to federal prison officials Wednesday to begin serving sentences imposed after they were convicted last year of shooting an unarmed suspect in the back as he ran across the border into Mexico. The wounded suspect, who had been involved in drug smuggling, was given immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony against the law officers. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Houston, the case has become a lightning rod for groups demanding better security on the border.
Former Border Patrol agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Alonso Compean voluntarily turned themselves over to federal prison authorities in El Paso after a federal judge denied a last minute motion for the two to remain free on bond pending an appeal of their conviction. Ramos was sentenced to 11 years and Compean to 12 years after a jury convicted them in March of last year for shooting and wounding Mexican national, Osvaldo Aldrete Davila.
Prosecutors gave Aldrete Davila immunity from prosecution for smuggling narcotics across the border in return for his testimony against the two Border Patrol agents. Aldrete Davila is now suing the US government for five million dollars.
Several U.S. congressmen and leaders of groups advocating stricter border enforcement have taken up the cause of the two Border Patrol officers, asking President Bush to pardon them. The White House says it has received petitions with more than 225 thousand signatures calling on the president to pardon the two men, but President Bush has not addressed the issue.
Andy Ramirez, Chairman of the non-profit group called Friends of the Border Patrol, says his group raised more than 45 thousand dollars in donations for the legal defense of the two men. He says he has become close with the family of Jose Alonso Compean and understands the frustration they feel. "How do you comfort Mrs. Compean, how do you comfort their children and his parents and his brothers and sisters? How do you comfort all of them, knowing that Jose did not do anything wrong? He did his job and because of that he is going to prison because of these absurd policies that allow narco-traffickers to have more credible word than law enforcement officers doing their job?," he said.
The head of the El Paso office of the League of United Latin American Citizens, Elvia Hernandez, says her organization did not view the two agents as innocent, because they had violated procedures and fired at an unarmed man. Still, she says, her organization did not support the harsh sentence and favored their remaining free while awaiting appeal. "We are still very disturbed that they did not let them stay out of jail while appeal was on. It is not that we do not think they should be punished, it is just that the sentence was a little strict," she said.
Hernandez says the federal court wanted to make an example of the two men to discourage other Border Patrol agents from violating the law, but she fears it may have the effect of discouraging agents from using force when it is justified and necessary.
The US Attorney for the Western District of Texas, Johnny Sutton, was unavailable for comment Wednesday, but in a written statement he released to the news media last week he defended the prosecution of the two agents. Sutton said, "These agents shot someone who they knew to be unarmed and running away." He said they also "destroyed evidence, covered up a crime scene and then filed false reports about what happened."
The U.S. Attorney rejected the notion that Ramos and Compean were simply doing their job. He said law enforcement officers who break the law must face the consequences just as anyone else would.