By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 17, 2007
Early this week, the Bush administration urged angry conservatives to remain calm over the convictions of two former Border Patrol agents who shot an unarmed Mexican drug smuggler, but petitions for their release continued to flood the White House.
It did not help that one the lawmen, Ignacio Ramos, was attacked by Latino gang members in his cell at the Yazoo City Federal Correctional Complex in Mississippi and beaten bloody. Days after prison officials confirmed the beating on Feb. 8, Department of Homeland Security officials admitted that an inspector general's report erroneously quoted Border Patrol agents as saying Ramos and his partner, Jose Compean, intended to kill Mexicans.
Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), founder of the House Immigration Reform Caucus and a presidential candidate, visited Ramos in prison and told him of the movement against his incarceration, including candlelight vigils, rallies, and a storm of criticism on conservative talk radio and television. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) threatened to call for impeachment proceedings against President Bush if the agents were harmed in prison, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) promised to look into the matter.
John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said that the 700 people who will attend the organization's annual convention in Washington on Feb. 25 will "speak with one voice" against the prosecution and conviction of the agents. The union, which represents Border Patrol agents and other federal workers, implored Bush in a letter this month to pardon Ramos and Compean.
"We think this thing has been mishandled from the start," Gage said. "We're meeting . . . with the head of the Bureau of Prisons. I'm going to raise some hell there to find out why these guys are in that particular institution."
According to a report by the DHS inspector general's office, the incident that landed the agents in trouble started on Feb. 17, 2005, when Asvaldo Aldrete-Davila, an admitted Mexican drug smuggler, drove across the border into Texas with 740 pounds of marijuana. He saw Border Patrol agents trailing him, panicked, and drove into a ditch.
During the chase that followed, Aldrete-Davila scuffled with Compean after the agent tried to smack him with the butt of a shotgun. The agents said they saw something in the suspect's hand and feared for their lives, according to the report and court testimony.
A fusillade of bullets from Compean and Ramos missed. Finally, Ramos took careful aim as Aldrete-Davila neared the border and hit him in the buttocks.
After the shooting, the agents collected all shell casings at the scene, threw them away and did not mention the shooting to superiors, a violation of Border Patrol procedures that call for an oral report after a weapon is discharged, according to the report and court records.
Investigators granted immunity to Aldrete-Davila to lure him back across the border. The story he told was corroborated by other officers at the scene, the report said.
In March last year, Ramos and Compean were found guilty of multiple charges, including assault with a dangerous weapon, discharge of a firearm in commission of a crime, and tampering with a crime scene. Judge Kathleen Cardone issued an 11-year prison sentence to Ramos and a 12-year sentence to Compean in October. The agents appealed to a higher court, and their conservative supporters started to pressure Bush to release them.
Since the convictions, a group called Grassfire.org has collected 40,000 signatures on a "Pardon the Agents" petition. Angry congressional Republicans -- including Rep. Ted Poe (Tex.), Rep. Phil Gingrey (Ga.) and Rep. Walter B. Jones (N.C.) -- also wrote Bush to say they are flummoxed over why the government accepted the word of an illegal-immigrant drug dealer over that of government agents.
"There's clearly a lot of interest in this issue," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said. She said the Bush administration has a policy against revealing the number of letters, petitions and requests it receives on any given matter.
"The president has urged everyone to look at the facts of the case, as they were convicted by a jury of their peers," Perino said. "There is a legal process that every defendant is entitled to, and we should let that play out."