One U.S. Border Patrol agent was killed and another badly injured last week during what the FBI referred to as a “tragic incident” in southwest Texas about 110 miles east of El Paso.
Agent Rogelio Martinez, 36, and his unidentified partner were both hospitalized in the predawn hours of Saturday, Nov. 18. Earlier that night, fellow Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents had received radio calls for assistance from the officers. Both men were found in critical condition along Interstate 10, near the town of Van Horn. Although the official cause of death is still pending, a CBP spokesperson stated the victims were “not fired upon.”
Martinez, who had been with the Border Patrol since 2013, succumbed to his injuries less than 24 hours later. The other, anonymous agent is now in stable condition—yet claims to have no memory of what befell them that night in the desert.
The lack of available evidence, eyewitnesses, gunshot wounds, or victim testimony in the Martinez case has not dissuaded President Trump and other Republican border hawks from using the unexplained episode as an excuse to call for a heightened crackdown along the U.S.-Mexican border.
Once again President Trump showed his willingness to appropriate an American family’s tragedy for his own political gain. Just a few hours after Martinez was declared dead, POTUS took to his preferred platform for addressing the nation.
“Border Patrol Officer killed at Southern Border, another badly hurt. We will seek out and bring to justice those responsible. We will, and must, build the Wall!” he tweeted.
We’ve come to expect that kind of fear mongering from the man who once dubbed Mexican immigrants “criminals, drug dealers, rapists,” and, later, “bad hombres.”
But Trump wasn’t the only one linking the agent’s death to a call for the wall.
Texas senator and one-time Trump punching bag Ted Cruz seized the occasion as well.
“This is a stark reminder of the ongoing threat that an unsecure border poses to the safety of our communities and those charged with defending them,” he tweeted.
Even Texas’ sanctuary-city-killing governor, Greg Abbott, got in on the act, citing the occurrence as part of a thinly veiled plea for additional federal security funding.
“Our resources must be increased to prevent these attacks in the future,” Abbott tweeted.
Gov. Abbott even went so far as to authorize a $20,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the case.
The FBI ponied up an additional $25,000 for a tip, but seemed relatively ambivalent about the cause of death and injury suffered by the CPB agents.
The special agent in charge of FBI’s El Paso field office, Emmerson Buie Jr., issued a brief, thin-on-details statement a few days after the men were discovered, saying the agency was considering a “potential assault on a federal officer.”
But then he seemed to hedge his bet.
“If the facts support that, then we would pursue it legally,” he said. “If they support that the incident was caused by something else, then we’ll present that.”
Culvert Cover Up?
All the right-wing bombast might be more understandable if there were some evidence to support the conclusion that the two officers were actually assaulted.
Unfortunately for the hardliners, no such evidence has been presented so far.
Here’s what we know: According to the FBI investigators, the officers were investigating a tripped motion sensor in the rugged Big Bend area of Culberson County. (These kinds of detectors are often triggered by animals.) Shortly after reporting the sensor activity, Martinez’s partner radioed in that both men were injured and required assistance.
The men were found at the bottom of a 14-foot-deep, road-side culvert used to divert runoff. Saturday was a moonless night, and the agents had suffered severe head trauma and broken bones.
Speaking on Monday, President Trump indicated the men had been “badly beaten” and again called for the wall. Meanwhile, a representative of the Southwest branch of the National Border Patrol Agents Council has publicly suggested the officers could have been attacked by assailants hurling stones.
“[Stoning is] the only thing they can think of,” said Council vice president Art Del Cueto. “There is nothing else there on the scene.”
Mr. Trump offered no explanation as to how well-armed border agents could be overpowered by hand. Just as purveyors of the stoning hypothesis were unable to account for the officers’ failure to return fire at their alleged attackers, or how the attackers’ managed such precise stone-throwing on a pitch black night.
Other investigators, however, have offered a much simpler theory: The reason the men were found lying at the bottom of a high-banked drainage ditch is because they fell into it in the dark.
Earlier this week the Associated Press reported that a “U.S. official, who was briefed on the investigation but is not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said Monday that Martinez was found at the bottom of the culvert and that investigators believe he may have fallen.”
That scenario also jibes with the testimony of agent Martinez’s father, who told local reporters he was initially notified by his son’s CBP supervisor that his son had been injured in an “accident.”
At the hospital, medical personnel told Martinez senior that his son had suffered cardiac arrest, but said nothing of foul play.
Culberson County Sheriff Oscar Carrillo, who is working with the FBI task force, also cast doubt on the idea of the officers having been attacked.
“The injuries to [Martinez], after talking to his doctors, were consistent with a fall,” the sheriff told The Dallas Morning News. “Very consistent with a fall.”
Fatal attacks on border agents are rare. CBP reports 38 agent deaths since 2003, not including Martinez, and many of them caused by non-criminal factors such as traffic accidents. The area near Van Horn is particularly inhospitable to both immigrants and drug smugglers due to desert conditions and mountainous terrain.
According to Border Patrol records, the Big Bend region made up just 1 percent of the 60,000 arrests in the last fiscal year.
Specifically referencing the assumption of foul play in the Martinez case, Sheriff Carrillo said, “The evidence is not obvious as to what happened out there.”
Try telling that to Trump.