The Main Stream

Mar 28, 2014 1:01 PM by Lupita Murillo and Michel Marizco

N4T Investigators: U.S. demands investigation into Mexican Army shooting of U.S. citizens

EL SÁSABE, SONORA - It's been nearly a week since Mexico's armed forces shot at three U.S. citizens, nearly killing one young man. The incident happened just across the Arizona border and was reported exclusively by KVOA's News 4 Investigators. Since then, new findings reveal that what initially was reported as a shooting at an official Mexican Army checkpoint now appears to be unsuperivsed and heavily armed Mexican soldiers intimidating random passerby and opening fire.

KVOA's findings prompted the U.S. Embassy in Mexico to insist on a full investigation into the shootings by Mexico's attorney general's office.

"As part of that request, we asked to be informed of the results of the investigations," said Chad Cummins, U.S. Consul in Nogales, Sonora, whose office covers the murky region of El Sásabe, Sonora where the shooting took place.

The hard-scrabble town of about 2,500 has existed as a smuggler's haven for more than a decade, known for its easy access into the Baboquivari Mountains and the Altar Valley north of the border in Arizona. Vans full of would-be border crossers pour into El Sásabe every spring, the final step in Mexico before the long and dangerous trek north. The United States staffs a port of entry here but because there's very little legal traffic, it's only open from morning to early night. The port of entry leads to a curve in the road that is Sasabe, Ariz., population, about 25.

Jose Rodriguez was born in El Sásabe. He is a U.S. citizen who went to Sunnyside High School in Tucson and now, at 19, works in a carwash. He says he and his friends were visiting his mother when the attack came.

The soldiers shot Rodriguez in the right arm and nearly in one of his lungs. He was in stable condition at University of Arizona Medical Center and agreed to speak about what happened to him because he's seeking a resolution.

After he was shot, Rodriguez half-fell, half-scrambled out of the vehicle he and two companions were traveling in when the soldiers opened fire.

"I had to crawl to a house. I was scared. I crawled," he said from his hospital bed.

His friend, Gerardo Fuentes was in the vehicle with him. The young men were on their way to Rocky Point and intended to head to the beach the next morning. Fuentes admits he and his friends were drinking beer and were driving when they passed a group of soldiers standing along the roadway in the center of town.

"That's when we started getting scared. Everyone went down. Then we heard a very horrible sound; the car started going to all the sides. It was very horrible and they started shooting even more and then we heard even more sounds and that's when my friend, Jose Javier, said that he has been shot," Fuentes said.

Mexican military officials reportedly told American law enforcement that the young men were trying to evade a checkpoint. Fuentes says that's not true.

"We didn't see no checkpoint. We didn't see no light or a signal where they had to make us because Sásabe, Sonora, is dark," he said.

Fuentes and the third young man ran off, afraid. They found Rodriguez's father in the night and told him what had happened. The father went to his son and found the soldiers surrounding him. They asked if he wanted help. He turned them down and took his son to the U.S. Port of Entry by himself. Customs and Border Protection said a U.S. Border Patrol agent stabilized Rodriguez on the scene and he was airlifted to UAMC.

Now, Rodriguez and his family and friends want answers.

"It was wrong what they did. They had no reason to shoot at us. We are three young men, we're not in the mafia or anything," he said.

But coming up with answers is going to be tough. It's difficult to know if Mexico is even investigating the case. A Mexican Army officer at the regiment barracks in the small town refused an interview request when approached by KVOA News and tried to prevent a reporter from shooting footage of the Army's compound. The victims said their vehicle was struck at least 15 times but it's since been hauled off to Caborca as evidence. A spokeswoman for the Mexican Federal Attorney General's Office in Hermosillo, Sonora, said the attorney general has no information about the case to share with reporters and declined to state whether the shooting was being investigated. The Mexican Consulate in Tucson refused repeated requests over four days to be interviewed about this case and what the government will do in the future to ensure the safety of Americans in Sonora.

In fact, the only remnant of the crime scene left in Sásabe was a ribbon of shredded police tape.

But locals in the town are outraged that the Mexican Army fired on the young men. Mexico positions armed federal checkpoints outside of its cities. In Sásabe, the Mexican Army mans an official checkpoint about two miles south of the town on the lone road leading to Altar and Mexican Highway 2.

But these soldiers opened fire right in the middle of the city with automatic weapons just feet away from neighborhood homes. Local town officials say this was no official checkpoint. They said this was a group of soldiers randomly stopping cars in the middle of the night.

Local residents declined to be interviewed because they feared repercussions by the military. One police officer agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. He points out that the port of entry is barely 150 yards away and the shooting took place right outside the regiment barracks.

"They say that they didn't know who they were. They only saw the lights and that's why they didn't stop," he said of the victims. "I've never seen a shooting like this here."

The shooting comes at a time when the Border Patrol is under criticism by the public and the U.S. Congress for its use of force policies. Recently, Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher ordered agents never to fire on a car that is trying to run away.

But Mexico, which has rarely fired on U.S. citizens, doesn't have the same restrictions for its checkpoints, though in this case, there was no official checkpoint involved.

The U.S. State Department has said it is asking Mexico to investigate the case but officials at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City did not know that this was not a regular marked checkpoint until it was brought to their attention by the KVOA News 4 Investigators.

All of which is very frustrating for these three young men.

"Honestly, I never thought that the Mexican police would do this to us," Fuentes said. "They're supposed to be there to protect us, not to hurt us. You know what I'm sayin'?

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