A Border Patrol agent guards the Mexico-California border. Credit: Gregory Bull/Associated Press

The New York Times Magazine’s cover story this week tackles the issue of violence along the U.S.-Mexico frontier, focusing on a controversial 2012 cross-border shooting in Arizona. The incident involved a U.S. Border Patrol agent who, while standing in the border town of Nogales, fired his weapon through a fence into Mexico, killing a 16-year-old boy.

The shooting death, subsequent lawsuit and federal murder prosecution of that Border Patrol agent has made national and local headlines. It’s a story that we at Reveal know well.     

Part of the backstory, which the Times explores in its visually captivating article, is the internal struggle over the appropriateness of the use of deadly force in this incident and others like it. At the heart of this debate was James F. Tomsheck, who retired last year as the internal affairs chief of Customs and Border Protection, the Border Patrol’s parent agency. In his mind, several shootings deemed justified were highly suspect.

Although he may be a polarizing figure, especially with the Border Patrol, Tomsheck is not alone. We have spent several years chronicling the border and misconduct, corruption and use-of-force issues involving Customs and Border Protection, the nation’s largest federal law enforcement agency. Our latest is a story that reports on a recently completed review of the agency’s use-of-force policy before it was revised two years ago.

The report stems from another federal lawsuit seeking damages over the 2011 shooting death of a Mexican man, José Alfredo Yañez Reyes, who fled from Border Patrol agents after he snuck into the U.S. from Tijuana. Agents were struggling to subdue another man they’d caught when, the agents say, Yañez threw a rock or two. One of the agents fired at Yañez, hitting him in the head and killing him.

Our story on the report, which was written by a law enforcement official with a career at both local and federal levels, highlighted how:

  • The Border Patrol had “an astonishing pattern” of shooting rock throwers.
  • Using deadly force – i.e., shooting – against rock throwers was something other law enforcement agencies rarely, if ever, do.
  • Border Patrol leadership failed to address a militarized culture that had become institutionalized.
  • The Border Patrol’s powerful and vocal union has resisted some reforms, including the adoption of recommendations to reduce such shootings and the growing use of body-worn cameras.

The Times story also looks behind the scenes at the various agencies that investigate shootings to determine whether the use of force was lawful. While the issue of border security is a constant, it receives varying attention in the news cycle, often reporting on crisis situations. One of the starkest problems that has evolved over the past few years involves women and children, many from Central America, arriving at America’s doorstep in South Texas. With the presidential campaign season in full swing, some expect the topic to receive continued attention.

For the full experience, check out The New York Times’ immersive virtual reality tour of Nogales and the scene of the shooting. From a bird’s-eye view of the sister border towns to the pebble-strewn street where the shooting occurred, it puts you in the exact spot where the incident took place. Aside from traveling to those places in person, the VR tour is the next best way to get a sense of the contrasts represented in that one moment, the reverberations of which were felt all the way to Washington.

Andrew Becker can be reached at abecker@cironline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @ABeckerCIR.

Correction: An earlier version of this story used an incorrect name for José Alfredo Yañez Reyes.

Andrew Becker is a reporter for Reveal, covering border, national and homeland security issues, as well as weapons and gun trafficking. He has focused on waste, fraud and abuse – with stories ranging from border corruption to the expanding use of drones and unmanned aerial vehicles, from the militarization of police to the intersection of politics and policy related to immigration, from terrorism to drug trafficking. Becker's reporting has appeared in The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Newsweek/The Daily Beast and on National Public Radio and PBS/FRONTLINE, among others. He received a master's degree in journalism from UC Berkeley. Becker is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.