In the early morning hours of Jan. 5, 2011, a 17-year-old male suffering from a gunshot wound was dropped off in front of the Hospital General in Nogales, Sonora. At approximately 3 a.m., he was pronounced dead.
It was soon revealed that the victim, Ramses Barron Torres of the city's borderfront Buenos Aires neighborhood, had been shot by a U.S. Border Patrol agent patrolling in an area below the Hudgins Street turnaround on the east side of Nogales, Ariz.
Citing reports from witnesses, Sonoran officials said Barron Torres had been climbing the border fence as he fled back into Mexico when the agent shot him. However, a youth who claimed to have witnessed the shooting told Radio XENY that Barron Torres was standing on the Mexican side of the fence when he was shot. The FBI, which investigated the shooting, said Border Patrol agents were attempting to arrest suspected drug smugglers near the fence when bystanders began throwing rocks at them. At that point, an agent fired at one of the rock-throwers.
One year later, the public is no closer to knowing exactly what happened that night at the border fence. The FBI has since completed its investigation, but referred all questions to the U.S. Attorney's Office, where spokesman Manuel Tarango this week said the shooting remained "an open matter" and therefore could not be discussed.
Other border-related shooting cases in the local area have yielded similarly opaque federal investigations.
Last May, the U.S. Attorney's Office announced that it had indicted 34-year-old Mexican national Manuel Osorio-Arellanes for the second-degree murder of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry near Rio Rico on Dec. 14, 2010. However, the names of Osorio-Arellanes' co-defendants - including the alleged triggerman - were blacked out on the indictment, and a federal judge quickly sealed the case from public view.
On Nov. 16, 2010 a Border Patrol agent patrolling on horseback near Walker Canyon west of Nogales shot a 30-year-old Sonora man in the stomach after the man allegedly threatened him with a rock. The man, who survived, told a lawyer that the agent had knocked him to the ground with his horse before shooting him in the abdomen and threatening to shoot him again in the head.
Tarango, the U.S. Attorney's Office spokesman, said the Walker Canyon shooting also remains an open case.
Jim Calle, a lawyer who represents Tucson Sector Border Patrol agents in the Local 2544 union, said the lack of information provided by prosecutors in these types of cases is typical.
"Any time it goes to the U.S. Attorney's Office, I think it's fair to say that it kind of becomes a black hole," said Calle, who said prosecutors are often just as unwilling to share information with the parties involved as with the public.
As for the slow pace of federal investigations, Calle noted the heavy workload of federal prosecutors, and the potential need for a case to be reviewed both at a local level and at the Department of Justice headquarters.
Lack of closure
The long wait and lack of information can be difficult for victims' families. Barron Torres' relatives could not immediately be reached for comment, but Terry's family has expressed frustration with the investigation into that murder - especially the lack of transparency regarding weapons found at Terry's murder scene that were linked to a botched ATF operation called Fast and Furious.
The lack of closure is also hard on Border Patrol agents who are involved in deadly shooting cases, Calle said.
"It's traumatic for the agent, both in terms of the fact that they took a life, but also because they understand that they are under investigation, and that there's some chance that they could be charged with some sort of offense," he said.
"I'm frequently hearing from agents who are asking me for updates, but I have nothing to tell them, because the U.S. Attorney is typically not going to tell me what the status of the case is."
Following the Barron Torres shooting last January, the Border Patrol, citing agency policy, said the agent involved had been placed on temporary administrative leave. With the U.S. Attorney's investigation still open one year later, the NI asked if the agent was still on leave or back in the field.
Mario Escalante, a spokesman for the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, said he could not comment due to the pending investigation.