When Border Patrol Agent Ignacio Ramos pulled the trigger last February, all he knew was that his partner was lying on the ground behind him – bloodied from a struggle with a fleeing suspect – shots had been fired and now, it appeared, the drug smuggler he was pursuing had turned toward him with what looked to be a gun in his hand.
In the split-second he had to respond, Ramos determined the course of his and his partner’s lives – federal prison for the next 20 years for assault with serious bodily injury, assault with a deadly weapon, discharging of a firearm in relation to a crime of violence, violating civil rights and obstruction of justice.
Ramos, 37, is an eight-year veteran of the U.S. Naval Reserve and a former nominee for Border Patrol Agent of the Year.
Agent Jose Alonso Compean. Courtesy of KFOX-TV
On Feb. 17, he responded to a request for back up from agent Jose Alonso Compean, 28, who noticed a suspicious van near the levee road along the Rio Grande River near the Texas town of Fabens, about 40 miles east of El Paso.
Ramos, who headed toward Fabens hoping to cut off the van, soon joined a third agent already in pursuit.
Behind the wheel of the van was an illegal alien, Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila of Mexico. Unknown to the growing number of Border Patrol agents converging on Fabens, Aldrete-Davila’s van was carrying 800 pounds of marijuana.
Unable to outrun Ramos and the third agent, Aldrete-Davila stopped the van on the levee, jumped out and started running toward the river. When he reached the other side of the levee, he was met by Compean, who had anticipated the smuggler’s attempt to get back to Mexico.
“We both yelled out for him to stop, but he wouldn’t stop, and he just kept running,” Ramos told California’s Inland Valley Daily Bulletin. Aldrete-Davila crossed a canal.
“At some point during the time where I’m crossing the canal, I hear shots being fired,” Ramos said. “Later, I see Compean on the ground, but I keep running after the smuggler.”
At that point, Ramos said, Aldrete-Davila turned toward him, pointing what looked like a gun.
“I shot,” Ramos said. “But I didn’t think he was hit, because he kept running into the brush and then disappeared into it. Later, we all watched as he jumped into a van waiting for him. He seemed fine. It didn’t look like he had been hit at all.”
The commotion and multiple calls for back up had brought seven other agents – including two supervisors – to the crossing by this time. Compean picked up his shell casings, but Ramos did not. He also did not follow agency procedure and report that he had fired his weapon.
“The supervisors knew that shots were fired,” Ramos told the paper. “Since nobody was injured or hurt, we didn’t file the report. That’s the only thing I would’ve done different.”
Had he done that one thing differently, it’s unlikely it would have mattered to prosecutors.
Over two weeks after the incident, Christopher Sanchez, an investigator with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General, received a call from a Border Patrol agent in Wilcox, Ariz. The agent’s mother-in-law had received a call from Aldrete-Davila’s mother in Mexico telling her that her son had been wounded in the buttocks in the shooting.
Sanchez followed up with a call of his own to the smuggler in Mexico.
In a move that still confuses Ramos and Compean, the U.S. government filed charges against them after giving full immunity to Aldrete-Davila and paying for his medical treatment at an El Paso hospital.
At trial, Assistant U.S. Attorney Debra Kanof told the court that the agents had violated an unarmed Aldrete-Davila’s civil rights.
“The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled it is a violation of someone’s Fourth Amendment rights to shoot them in the back while fleeing if you don’t know who they are and/or if you don’t know they have a weapon,” said Kanof.
Kanof dismissed Ramos’ testimony that he had seen something shiny in the smuggler’s hand, saying that the agent couldn’t be sure it was a gun he had seen.
Further, Kanof argued, it was a violation of Border Patrol policy for agents to pursue fleeing suspects.
“Agents are not allowed to pursue. In order to exceed the speed limit, you have to get supervisor approval, and they did not,” she told the Daily Bulletin.
The shell casings Compean picked up were described to the jury as destroying the crime scene and their failure to file an incident report – punishable by a five-day suspension, according to Border Patrol regulations – an attempted cover up.
The Texas jury came back with a guilty verdict. Conviction for discharging a firearm in relation to a crime of violence has an automatic 10-year sentence. The other counts have varying punishments. Ramos and Compean will be sentenced next month.
“How are we supposed to follow the Border Patrol strategy of apprehending terrorists or drug smugglers if we are not supposed to pursue fleeing people?” said Ramos, who said that he only did on that day what he had done for the previous 10 years. “Everybody who’s breaking the law flees from us. What are we supposed to do? Do they want us to catch them or not?”
He also noted that none of the other agents who had responded to the incident filed reports that shots were fired and, besides, both supervisors at the scene knew they had discharged their weapons.
“You need to tell a supervisor because you can’t assume that a supervisor knows about it,” Kanof countered. “You have to report any discharge of a firearm.”
“This is the greatest miscarriage of justice I have ever seen,” said Andy Ramirez of the nonprofit group Friends of the Border Patrol. “This drug smuggler has fully contributed to the destruction of two brave agents and their families and has sent a very loud message to the other Border Patrol agents: If you confront a smuggler, this is what will happen to you.”
The El Paso Sheriff’s Department has increased its patrols around the Ramos home. The family is receiving threats from people they believe are associated with Aldrete-Davila.
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