The scene could have been out of an action movie, but one with a senseless, tragic ending instead of a heroic one.
In September 2012, a group of Border Patrol agents went to a house in Chula Vista, a Southern California city near San Diego. The goal was to carry out an arrest warrant.
Instead, a Border Patrol agent got tangled up in a fatal encounter with a 32-year-old mother of five. The woman, Valeria “Munique” Tachiquin Alvarado, wasn’t the subject of the arrest warrant and was a U.S. citizen. But when agents arrived at the house — known for drug activity — she fled the scene, according to local police.
She got into her car and struck a border agent with the vehicle, causing him to fear for his life, authorities said. The agent rode on top of her hood for about 200 yards, according to the agency, and fired 10 rounds, killing her at the scene. One witness, however, described a different scenario to reporters: that the agent fired at the car while standing in front of it.
The autopsy report further complicated the scenario. Alvarado had methamphetamine in her system, perhaps tied to a drug abuse problem. And according to a lawyer for the Alvarado family, the angle of the bullet wounds backed up the theory that the agent was standing in front of the car while firing, not riding on the hood.
The case represents more than just a strange, sad turn of events. In recent years, Border Patrol has come under increased scrutiny from immigrant rights groups for how the agency uses deadly force. And a new internal report commissioned by Border Patrol shows that there are clear areas for improvement, even if the agency isn’t willing to take the advice.
Border Patrol recently commissioned an internal review by a group of law enforcement experts, which recommended that the agency revise its use of force policy to restrict agents from firing at moving vehicles. Last week, the Los Angeles Times obtained a copy of the report, which was conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum.
"It is suspected that in many vehicle shooting cases, the subject driver was attempting to flee from the agents who intentionally put themselves into the exit path of the vehicle, thereby exposing themselves to additional risk and creating justification for the use of deadly force," the report reads.
"It should be recognized that a half-ounce (200-grain) bullet is unlikely to stop a 4,000-pound moving vehicle, and if the driver … is disabled by a bullet, the vehicle will become a totally unguided threat," it said. "Obviously, shooting at a moving vehicle can pose a risk to bystanders including other agents."
Border Patrol’s policy for use of force isn’t the same as other major law enforcement agencies around the country. For example, police officers in New York City aren’t permitted to fire at a moving vehicle unless confronted with some other type of deadly force, like a gun.
In the eyes of Border Patrol, however, a moving vehicle itself can be a deadly weapon.
The Police Executive Research Forum made a recommendation: agents should “get out of the way… as opposed to intentionally assuming a position in the path of such vehicles."
Border Patrol rejected that idea in an official response to the report, also obtained by the Los Angeles Times. The agency countered that if agents can’t fire at vehicles, assailants may intentionally target agents with cars, knowing that they’re unable to respond.
Moving vehicles aren’t the only controversial instance where Border Patrol agents are authorized to use deadly force. Agents can also respond to thrown rocks by firing a weapon.
Of the 24 people killed by Border Patrol agents in the last four years, eight of them were alleged rock throwers, according to The Arizona Republic. One Mexican teen was fatally shot twice in the head and eight times in the back after an alleged rock-throwing incident in 2012.
The internal review of the agency recommended agents be barred from shooting when attacked with thrown objects that can’t cause serious physical injury, the Los Angeles Times reported. Border Patrol countered that limiting such a use of firearms "could create a more dangerous environment."
The father of the woman killed by Border Patrol in Chula Vista, Valentin Tachiquin, spoke to reporters on Friday about Border Patrol policies. Tachiquin, who is suing Border Patrol over his daughter’s death, criticized the agency for the “shameful practice of shooting an unarmed civilian” and an unchecked “culture of violence.”
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.