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US agent goes to trial for the killing of an unarmed Mexican teenager across the border

The unarmed 16-year-old was shot ten times – mostly from behind.

A mural of 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elend Rodriguez on the street where he was killed.
A mural of 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elend Rodriguez on the street where he was killed.

A RARE SECOND-DEGREE murder trial of a US Border Patrol agent accused of shooting across the international boundary into Mexico and killing a teenager is set to start with jury selection.

The trial starting today comes amid President Donald Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration and his promise to build a wall along the 3,200-kilometre US-Mexico border.

Lonnie Swartz is accused of killing 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez five years ago. The teenager was on the street in Nogales, in the Mexican state of Sonora, just across the border from Nogales, Arizona.

An autopsy showed the unarmed teen was hit 10 times, mostly from behind.

Following jury selection, opening statements would take place later today or on Wednesday, said Cosme Lopez, spokesman for the US District Court for the District of Arizona.

Lee Gelernt, a New York-based lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, said he believes Swartz will be the first border agent prosecuted by the US Justice Department in a fatal shooting across the international border.

Gelernt is handling a civil lawsuit for the teen’s mother, who is seeking monetary damages against Swartz.

“This historically important trial is coming at a time when all eyes are on the border,” he said.

Prosecutors say Swartz opened fire at about 11.30pm on Oct. 10, 2012, through the metal poles of a 6-metre fence that sits on a 7.6-metre embankment above Mexico’s Calle Internacional, a street lined with homes and small businesses.

About 20,000 people live on the Arizona side and about 300,000 live on the Mexico side, but the two communities linked by family members, trade and culture have long been referred to locally as “Ambos Nogales” — “Both Nogales” in Spanish.

Border Patrol Shooting Graffiti asking for Justice for the slain 16-year-old. Source: Anita Snow

Swartz’s lawyers have said Elena Rodriguez threw rocks just before he was shot in an attempt to create a distraction for drug smugglers and that the officer was justified in using lethal force. They want jurors to visit the site at night to experience the area after dark.

Witnesses from the Mexico side of the border said they did not see the teen throw rocks and his relatives have denied he was helping drug smugglers, saying he was walking home after playing basketball.

The US Attorney’s Office has said it won’t dispute that the boy was throwing rocks, but it’s unknown if he had any link to drug smugglers. They argue an unreasonable amount of force was used.

Swartz pleaded not guilty after being indicted by a federal grand jury in 2015 and is currently on administrative leave and free on his own recognizance. The Border Patrol has not said if he is continuing to receive his salary.

Defence attorney Sean Chapman has declined to comment while the trial is ongoing. A spokesman for the agents’ union, the National Border Patrol Council, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The case is expected to last more than a month and activists who oppose US border policies say they will rally outside the courthouse.

“For so long, prosecutors have been reluctant to charge Border Patrol agents with violent crimes,” said John Fife, a retired Presbyterian minister who was active in the sanctuary movement that sheltered citizens of Central American countries who came to the US in the 1980s fleeing civil war. “Now we will see if they can be held accountable.”

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Associated Press

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