The killing of Claudia Patricia Gómez González on May 23 by a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent has sparked outrage across the United States. Gómez Gonzalez, a 20-year-old immigrant from Guatemala, embodied the aspirations of so many who come to this country: Trained as a forensic accountant, she left her homeland because she wanted to keep studying. With no way to earn the money to further her education at home, she traveled north to earn a living and reunite with her boyfriend in Virginia. Her dreams were met with a bullet in the head.
Americans are right to be horrified by the murder at the hands of a federal border agent and to demand justice for Ms. Gómez Gonzalez’s family. But, as the horror seeps in, we must also realize that this is not just a case of a rogue agent; rather, it is the latest killing by a rogue agency whose abuses must be stopped.
CBP has a harrowing history of lethal violence. A recent investigation by The Guardian found that, since 2003, CBP agents have killed 97 people. While the causes of death span a wide range—from being run over by agents’ cars to being killed by tasers or beatings—the majority of killings were from bullet wounds, in many cases from shots to the back. Of the 97 people killed by CBP in this timespan, at least six were children.
Nor is CBP violence limited to immigrants crossing the southern border. No fewer than 28 of those killed were US citizens. And, while most of the CBP killings recorded by The Guardian occurred in Texas, Arizona, and California, CBP agents also operate with impunity along the northern border. Since 2003, CBP agents have killed people in Maine, Michigan, Montana, New York, and Washington State.
CBP has paid $9 million to settle some of these cases, but the agency’s primary strategy in cases of deadly force seems to be to cover up its agents’ brutality. In the case of Gómez González, the agency first argued that its agent had “fatally wounded one of the assailants” who attacked him with “two-by-four pieces of lumber.” An eyewitness, Marta Martínez, took cell-phone video of the aftermath and later observed that there were no two-by-fours in the area. The agency changed its story to claim the agent fired his gun after being “rushed” by the group with which Gómez González was traveling.
There is no reason to believe that CBP will hold the agent, or the agency itself, accountable in this case. To justify deadly force, CBP routinely claims that victims of its violence attacked agents—for instance, alleging they have thrown rocks or other objects. Indeed, as The Guardian analysis found, in all 17 of the reports on significant incidents of use of force that were made public after review by CBP’s National Use of Force Review Board, the “use of force [was found] to be compliant with agency policy in effect at the time.” At the same time, a report by the Police Executive Research Forum, which is overseen by a board of police chiefs, found many cases of CBP agents’ intentionally putting themselves in harm’s way to justify responding with bullets.