The FBI says it is investigating a Border Patrol shooting early Wednesday in Nogales as an assault on a federal officer by rock-throwers. But a friend of 17-year-old Ramses Barron Torres, who was killed after reportedly being struck by a patrolman’s bullet during the incident, said Barron Torres was an innocent victim who was killed while standing on Mexican soil.
FBI spokesman Manuel Johnson told the Nogales International in an e-mail that at approximately 3 a.m. on Wednesday, Border Patrol agents were attempting to arrest suspected drug smugglers near the border fence when bystanders began throwing rocks at them.
“An agent responded by firing a shot at an alleged rock thrower,” Johnson said, before declining to answer additional questions due to the ongoing investigation.
However, Barron Torres’ friend, who said he witnessed the shooting, denied that there was any rock-throwing. The 17-year-old Sonoran youth, who agreed to be interviewed only on the condition that his name would not be printed, said he was on the U.S. side of the border and Barron Torres was standing five or six meters away from the fence when the agent fired.
“I think he fired just to scare me,” the youth said. But the bullet passed through the fence – the barrier at the spot where the shooting occurred consists of vertical steel tubes with several inches of space between them – and stuck Barron Torres instead.
The youth said the agent ran up behind him and grabbed him as he was trying to scale the fence back into Mexico, but let go when he started screaming that his friend had been shot.
“I think he got scared,” he said.
Asked if the teens had been throwing rocks, the alleged witness said no. He suggested the agent fired at him because he was running toward the agent as he looked for a spot to jump the fence. What’s more, he was wearing a ski mask at the time – to ward off the cold, he said – and the mask may have frightened the agent.
On Thursday morning the Nogales International visited the home of Barron Torres’ mother, Selma Berenice Barron Torres, just a few yards from the border fence in the Nogales, Sonora neighborhood of Buenos Aires. She said she knew nothing about the circumstances of his shooting.
“I’m focused on recovering my son’s body and giving him a Christian burial,” she said.
But a few doors away, neighbors Ramona and Rosa Isela Abechuco said they were well aware of Barron Torres’ character and habits, since he had been living with them since he was 2. They rejected the suggestion that he had been mixed up with crime or had been throwing rocks when he was shot.
“Ramses didn’t use drugs, he didn’t walk a crooked path,” Rosa Isela Abechuco said. “He was a healthy kid who was well liked by the residents of this neighborhood.”
Barrios Torres had a girlfriend on the U.S. side of the fence, the women said, but he didn’t have the documents to cross legally. So he would hop the fence separating Buenos Aires and the Hudgins-Beck Street area of Nogales, Ariz., to visit her. That may have been his plan on the night he was killed, they said.
Footage from Border Patrol surveillance cameras set on towers above the floodlit area where the incident occurred would help clarify the circumstances leading up the shooting – if they indeed captured it. A video could also help determine if Barron Torres was on U.S. or Mexican soil when he was shot.
Border Patrol Tucson Sector spokesman Eric Cantu referred questions about possible video footage to the FBI, but Johnson did not respond to a request for comment.
Cause of death
According to a statement issued Wednesday evening by the Sonora State Investigative Police, or PEI, its office in Nogales, Sonora was notified at approximately 3:10 a.m. that a dead body had been dropped off in front of the emergency room at the city’s Hospital General. Arriving at the hospital, officers found the body of Barron Torres, showing “bruises and abrasions on different parts of his body.”
A prosecutor ordered an autopsy, which determined the cause of death to be a bullet that entered the back of Barron Torres’ right arm and continued into his chest cavity, puncturing a lung and lodging in the left side of his ribcage.
The gunshot wound, the agency said, “appears to have been caused by an agent from the Border Patrol when he tried to cross illegally into the United States."
An incident report from the Nogales, Sonora municipal police said that a security guard at the hospital reported seeing a cherry-colored Dodge Durango with Arizona license plates pull up to the hospital at around 3 a.m. Three men got out of the vehicle, pulled a fourth man out and laid him on the ground before speeding off, the report said.
However, the PEI statement said one of the men cried out for a stretcher, saying he had an injured person who needed attention. As emergency personnel searched for vital signs, the three passengers told them that Barron Torres had been climbing the border wall when a Border Patrol agent shot him once. He then fell onto a pile of gravel on the Mexican side of the fence, the men said.
Still another version
Earlier on Wednesday, The Associated Press quoted Nogales, Sonora city spokesman Alejandro Palacios as saying that Barron Torres died after he fell from the border fence and hit his head on a rock.
Palacios told the AP that Border Patrol agents fired warning shots in the air after the teen and other youths crossed the border illegally and began throwing rocks at them. He said none of the youths were shot.
Reached by the Nogales International, Palacios declined to confirm that account and referred all questions to the PEI.
Colleen Agle, a spokeswoman for the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, said she could not confirm or deny any of Palacios’ account. However, she said warning shots fired in the air would be highly unusual, given Border Patrol firearms protocols.
“Are we permitted to do that? No,” she said, noting that such a practice would be especially dangerous in a populated area like that where the shooting occurred.
(Reporting by Jonathan Clark, Luis Alatorre and Cesar Barron.)