Convicted border agent tells his story
Washington, Aug 6, 2006 -
By Sara A. Carter, Staff Writer
Article Launched: 08/06/2006 12:00:00 AM PDT
EL PASO, Texas - Border Patrol Agent Ignacio Ramos could hear his heart racing. He could feel the dry, hot dust burning against his skin as he chased a drug trafficker trying to flee back into Mexico.
Ramos' fellow agent, Jose Alonso Compean, was lying on the ground behind him, banged up and bloody from a scuffle with the much-bigger smuggler moments earlier.
Suddenly the smuggler turned toward the pursuing Ramos, gun in hand. Ramos, his own weapon already drawn, shot at him, though the man was able to flee into the brush and escape the agents.
Now, nearly 18 months after that violent encounter, Ramos and Compean are facing 20 years in federal prison for their actions.
According to the U.S. attorney who successfully prosecuted the agents, the man they were chasing didn't actually have a gun, shooting him in the back violated his civil rights, the agents didn't know for a fact that he was a drug smuggler, and they broke Border Patrol rules about discharging their weapons and preserving a crime scene.
Even more broadly, Assistant U.S. Attorney Debra Kanof said, Ramos and Compean had no business chasing someone in the first place.
"It is a violation of Border Patrol regulations to go after someone who is fleeing," she said. "The Border Patrol pursuit policy prohibits the pursuit of someone."
Her arguments, along with testimony from other agents on the scene and that of the smuggler himself, swayed a jury. It was a crushing blow to Compean and Ramos, both of whom had pursued suspects along the border as a regular part of their job.
It also appears to fly in the face of the Border Patrol's own edicts, which include "detouring illegal entries through improved enforcement" and "apprehending and detouring smugglers of humans, drugs and other contraband."
The smuggler was given full immunity to testify against the agents and complete medical care at William Beaumont Army Medical Center, in El Paso.
Neither Ramos nor Compean had granted an interview in the almost 18 months since the shooting. Compean's attorneys have told him to not speak to anyone about the case.
But Ramos and his family say they no longer can be silent.
"They don't throw this many charges at guys they've caught with over 2,000 pounds of marijuana," Ramos said. "There's murderers and child rapists that are looking at less time than me.
"I am not guilty. I did not do what they're accusing me of."
Ramos, 37, and Compean, 28, are set to be sentenced Aug. 22 for shooting Osbaldo Aldrete-Davila, a Mexican citizen, on Feb. 17, 2005, in the small Texas town of Fabens, about 40 miles south east of El Paso.
A Texas jury convicted the pair of assault with serious bodily injury; assault with a deadly weapon; discharge of a firearm in relation to a crime of violence; and a civil rights violation. Compean and Ramos also were convicted of four counts and two counts, respectively, of obstruction of justice for not reporting that their weapons had been fired.
The jury acquitted both men of assault with intent to commit murder.
But the conviction for discharge of a firearm in relation to a crime of violence requires a minimum 10-year prison sentence. The sentences for the other convictions vary.
On July 25, the El Paso U.S. Probation Office recommended to Judge Kathleen Cardone that each man get 20 years.
Ramos, an eight-year veteran of the U.S. Naval Reserve and a former nominee for Border Patrol Agent of the Year, now has but one thing on his mind: What will happen to his wife and three young sons if he spends the next two decades in prison?
"It's (with) a leap of faith and my devotion to God that me and my family will make it through this," Ramos said as he looked at his wife, Monica, during an exclusive interview with the Daily Bulletin this past month in El Paso.
Two things were clear throughout the interview: Ramos is convinced he was simply doing his job when Aldrete-Davila was shot, and he is perplexed as to why he and his partner are being punished so severely.
Here's Ramos' version of what happened that day:
On Feb. 17, 2005, Compean was monitoring the south side of a levee road near the Rio Grande on the U.S.-Mexico border in Fabens when he spotted a suspicious van driving down the north end of the road. He called for backup.
Ramos headed to Fabens, where he thought he could intercept the van at one of only two roads leading in and out of the small town.
Another agent was already following the van -- with Aldrete-Davila at the wheel -- when Ramos arrived.
Ramos and the other agent followed the van through the center of town until it turned back toward the Rio Grande, which marks the border between Mexico and the United States. Aldrete-Davila, unable to outrun the agents, stopped his van on a levee, got out and started running. Compean was waiting for him on the other side of the levee.
"We both yelled out for him to stop, but he wouldn't stop, and he just kept running," Ramos said.
Aldrete-Davila made his way through a canal, and Ramos could hear Compean yelling for Aldrete-Davila to stop, he said.
"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."
Through the thick dust, Ramos watched as Aldrete-Davila turned toward him, pointing what appeared to be a gun.
"I shot," he 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."
Seven other agents were on the scene by that time. Compean had already picked up his shell casings. Ramos did not, though he failed to report the shooting.
"The supervisors knew that shots were fired," Ramos said. "Since nobody was injured or hurt, we didn't file the report. That's the only thing I would've done different."
The van later was found to have about 800 pounds of marijuana inside.
A DIFFERENT TAKE
The version of events presented by the U.S. Attorney's Office during the agents' trial differed markedly from Ramos'.
"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, the assistant U.S. attorney.
Ramos testified during the trial that he saw Aldrete-Davila with something "shiny" in his hand, she said, and though Ramos told the Daily Bulletin he thought it was a gun, he couldn't be sure, she said.
Moreover, the agents "did not know who this individual was or what he had in the van," Kanof said. "They just decided or guessed."
She then reiterated her contention that pursuing Aldrete-Davila or anyone else fleeing border agents is not part of the Border Patrol's job.
"Agents are not allowed to pursue. In order to exceed the speed limit, you have to get supervisor approval, and they did not," she said.
The prosecutor also said the men destroyed the crime scene when Compean picked up his shell casings and attempted to cover up their actions by not reporting they'd fired their weapons.
Ramos said his pursuit of Aldrete-Davila was nothing different from what he's done in the past 10 years as a Border Patrol agent.
"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?" he continued. "Everybody who's breaking the law flees from us. What are we supposed to do? Do they want us to catch them or not?"
Ramos also said that both supervisors who were at the scene knew shots had been fired but did not file reports.
"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."
Mary Stillinger, Ramos' attorney, and Maria Ramirez, Compean's attorney, said during the trial that every other Border Patrol agent at the scene also failed to report shots had been fired.
"Every single witness has a reason to lie," Ramirez said, referring to the immunity granted to Aldrete-Davila and the other agents in exchange for testifying against Ramos and Compean.
According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Table of Offenses and Penalties, failure to report that a weapon has been fired in the line of duty is punishable by a five-day suspension.
Ramos also is puzzled as to why, more than two weeks after the shooting, a Department of Homeland Security investigator -- acting on a tip from a Border Patrol agent in Arizona -- tracked down Aldrete-Davila in Mexico, offering him immunity if he testified against the agents who shot at him.
Why the agent tipped Homeland Security to the smuggler's whereabouts is partly explained in a confidential Homeland Security memo obtained by the Daily Bulletin. Why the department and the U.S. Attorney's Office in El Paso pursued the matter so aggressively is less clear.
"Osbaldo (Aldrete-Davila) had told (Border Patrol agent) Rene Sanchez that his friends had told him they should put together a hunting party and go shoot some BP agents in revenge for them shooting Osbaldo," reads a memo written by Christopher Sanchez, an investigator with the department's Office of Inspector General. "Osbaldo advised Rene Sanchez that he told his friends he was not interested in going after the BP agents and getting in more trouble."
Neither Rene Sanchez nor Christopher Sanchez could be reached for comment. Mike Friels, a spokesman for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection branch of the Department of Homeland Security, said he could not comment on the case, citing pending litigation.
BEHIND THE SCENES
In the same Homeland Security memo, Christopher Sanchez outlines how the investigation into Ramos and Compean was initiated.
On March 10, 2005, Christopher Sanchez received a telephone call from Border Patrol agent Rene Sanchez of Wilcox, Ariz., who told the agent about Aldrete-Davila's encounter with Ramos and Compean.
According to the document, Rene Sanchez stated "that Osbaldo Aldrete-Davila's mother, Marcadia Aldrete-Davila, contacted Rene Sanchez's mother-in-law, Gregoria Toquinto, and advised her about the BP agents shooting Aldrete-Davila. Toquinto told her son-in-law, Rene Sanchez, of the incident, and he spoke to Osbaldo via a telephone call."
During the trial, the connection between Rene Sanchez and Aldrete-Davila confused the Ramos family, and "we questioned how an agent from Arizona would know or want to defend a drug smuggler from Mexico," said Monica Ramos.
Kanof bristled when asked about the Rene Sanchez/Aldrete-Davila connection.
"It's an unconscionable accusation that Sanchez is associated with a drug dealer," she said. "Most BP agents who are Hispanic have family from Mexico. He was born in the U.S. and raised in Mexico and came back to do high school and later became an agent."
The Ramoses also contend Aldrete-Davila's story changed several times.
According to the memo, Aldrete-Davila told investigators the agents shot him in the buttocks when he was trying to enter the country illegally from Mexico. But according to Aldrete-Davila's later testimony and that of the agents, he was shot after trying to evade the agents upon his re-entry into Mexico.
The memo never was disclosed to the jury.
Aldrete-Davila is suing the Border Patrol for $5 million for violating his civil rights.
As a Border Patrol agent, Ramos has been involved in the capture of nearly 100 drug smugglers and the seizure of untold thousands of pounds of narcotics. He also was nominated for Border Patrol Agent of the Year in March 2005, though the nomination was withdrawn after details of the Aldrete-Davila incident came out.
Ramos also had drug interdiction training from the Drug Enforcement Agency and qualified as a Task Force Officer with the Border Patrol. But Ramos' training in narcotics -- as well as the numerous credentials he had received for taking Border Patrol field training classes -- was not admissible during the trial, he said.
"My husband is a good man, a loving father, and his devotion to his country and his job is undeniable," Monica Ramos said. "Prosecutors treated the drug smuggler like an innocent victim, refusing to allow testimony that would have helped my husband. The smuggler was given immunity. My husband is facing a life in prison.
"It's so frightening, it doesn't seem real."
The El Paso Sheriff's Department has met with the Ramos family to discuss continued threats against them from people they believe to be associated with Aldrete-Davila. The sheriff's department also has increased patrols around the family's home.
The only other organization that has responded to the Ramoses thus far, Monica Ramos said, is the Chino-based nonprofit group Friends of the Border Patrol, chaired by Andy Ramirez.
"This is the greatest miscarriage of justice I have ever seen," Ramirez said. "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."
TJ Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union representing border agents, said the Border Patrol's official pursuit policy handcuffs agents in the field. He also sees the prosecution of Ramos and Compean as part of a larger effort by the federal government.
"The pursuit policy has negatively affected the Border Patrol's mission as well as public safety. Part of that mission is to stop terrorists and drug smugglers," Bonner said. "They could be smuggling Osama bin Laden, drugs, illegal aliens, or it could have been just some drunk teenager out on a joyride. You don't know until you stop them."
"The administration is trying to intimidate front-line agents from doing their job," he added. "If they can't do it administratively, they'll do it with trumped-up criminal charges.
"Moreover, the specter of improprieties in the prosecution of this case raises serious concerns that demand an immediate, thorough and impartial investigation."
COUNTING THE DAYS
About a week ago, feeling little hope, Joe Loya, Monica Ramos' father, took the family on what will be Ignacio Ramos' last fishing trip with his sons before he is sentenced.
"What kind of justice is this?" Loya asked. "What kind of nation do we live in when the word of a smuggler means more than the word of a just man?"
Monica Ramos says her hardest day is yet to come -- the day the authorities take her husband away.
"We just guard (our children's) hearts right now," Monica Ramos said. "I think about the last time he'll hug them as children, and maybe not get the chance to hug them again until they are grown men."
The sons are between 6 and 13 years old.
Ignacio Ramos was, if anything, even more emotional.
"Less than a month left with my family," he said, his voice choking, as though the air had been pulled from his lungs. "My sons," he whispered. Then silence.
It took several minutes for Ramos to summon more words. "All I think about at night is the day I have to leave my family. I can't sleep. I've always been with them."
Then he talked about the memories he would never have, "their first dates, high school graduation, sports," and the tears falling from his eyes were mirrored only by those of his wife, who took his hand into hers.