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‘They killed my child’: Border Patrol shooting of Guatemalan woman stirs protests

Dominga Vicente shows a photo of her niece, Claudia Patricia Gómez González, who was killed by a U.S. Border Patrol agent. (Moises Castillo/AP)

Hearing the gunshot, Marta Martinez rushed out of her home in Rio Bravo, Tex., and began recording a video on her phone. She saw a woman lying motionless on the ground, bleeding from the head, Martinez said in the Facebook Live video. She saw a Border Patrol agent holding a gun.

“Why did you shoot the girl? You killed her,” she yelled in the video. “She’s there. She’s dead. I saw you with the gun!”

“How are you going to shoot a girl in the head?” Martinez shouted.

The young woman was a 19-year-old Guatemalan citizen named Claudia Patricia Gómez González, Guatemala’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said. She had recently entered the United States, leaving behind her poor community of  San Juan Ostuncalco, Guatemala, in search of a job and in the hope of reuniting with her longtime boyfriend. But on Wednesday, she was shot and killed during a run-in with a Border Patrol officer, the agency said.

The shooting, which took place near the border in South Texas, has angered Gómez’s relatives in Guatemala and immigration activists across the United States, inflaming tensions over the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration enforcement.

Border Patrol officials originally said in a statement Wednesday that a lone agent responded to “a report of illegal activity” near a culvert in Rio Bravo Wednesday afternoon when he came across a group of undocumented immigrants. When the Border Patrol agent tried to apprehend the group, “he came under attack by multiple subjects using blunt objects,” the agency said in a statement. He fired at least one gunshot, “fatally wounding one of the assailants,” the statement read.

The rest of the group ran away from the authorities, but agents later apprehended three of them. Border Patrol agents called emergency medical services for Gómez and administered first aid until firefighters arrived.

But the Border Patrol’s message changed slightly on Friday. While the agency’s initial statement described the woman as “one of the assailants,” Friday’s statement referred to her as “one member of the group.” Officials said the immigrants ignored the officer’s orders to get on the ground, and instead “rushed him,” according to the Associated Press and CNN. The second statement did not mention the throwing of any objects. The agent, who had been with Border Patrol for 15 years, has been placed on administrative leave.

Immigrant rights activists and Guatemalan officials decried the agency’s inconsistent message. “The Border Patrol changes its version and sows doubts about the death of an immigrant,” Carlos Narez, secretary of the National Council for Migrant Assistance in Guatemala tweeted Saturday.

The incident is under investigation by the FBI and Texas Rangers. Guatemala’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it met with Gómez’s relatives, who asked that her body be sent to Guatemala. Foreign Affairs Minister Sandra Jovel called for a “thorough and impartial investigation” into the shooting.

The foreign ministry said Guatemala rejects “any acts of violence and the excessive use of force by the Border Patrol, and calls for the rights of our compatriots to be respected at all times, whatever their immigration status, especially the right to life.” The three detained immigrants are all of Guatemalan origin and are all in good health, the ministry said.

Across the country, rallies and vigils are planned this week to honor Gómez’s life and demand justice for her death. One of the vigils is scheduled to take place in Alexandria, Va., where Gómez planned to reunite with her boyfriend of five years, Yosimar Morales.

“My heart is broken for this tragedy,” Morales told Univision, speaking from Alexandria. He came to the United States about one year ago, he said, and planned to marry Gómez and have children with her.

“They took away a piece of life,” he said.

In Guatemala, Gómez’s mother wailed in tears as she spoke of her daughter’s death. Gómez’s younger sisters leaned against their mother, also weeping.

“They killed my child. Immigration killed her,” the mother, Lidia Gonzalez, cried out while speaking to Guatemalan reporters. “Why did they do this?”

Gómez, the oldest of three girls in the family, had graduated high school in 2016 and hoped to pursue a career in accounting. Unable to attend college, she spent two years looking for jobs in Guatemala, with no luck. She decided to move to the United States to find work.

“She left home 15 days ago, saying: ‘Mamita, we’re going to go on ahead. I’ll make money,’ ” Gonzalez said. “There is no work here. That’s why my daughter left.”

“My daughter went there because of need. She didn’t steal anything,” the mother added.

Gómez’s father, Gilberto Gómez, was deported from the United States last year. He told local television station Guatevision that he hopes the officer who killed her “pays for what he did.”

Dominga Vicente, Gómez’s aunt, appeared in a news conference Friday asking for financial support for the family. “We need the support of an institution that can lend us a hand” to put pressure on authorities and find justice for Gómez’s death. Vicente called for the officer who shot her niece to be removed from his post. If not, she said, such bloodshed will continue.

“She is not the first person to die in this country,” Vicente said. “There are many people that have been treated like animals, and that isn’t what we should do as people.”

She called on the United States to stop mistreating immigrants “just because it is a powerful country, just because it is a developed country.”

“Don’t treat us like animals,” she said, referring to comments made by President Trump earlier this month calling undocumented immigrants “animals.”

“We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in — and we’re stopping a lot of them — but we’re taking people out of the country,” Trump said in an immigration roundtable with California officials. “You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals. And we’re taking them out of the country at a level and at a rate that’s never happened before.”

Trump later defended his use of the word “animals,” saying he was referring to members of the MS-13 gang. “When the MS-13 comes in, when the other gang members come into our country, I refer to them as animals. And guess what? I always will.”

Trump has taken steps to ramp up patrol at the border, ordering National Guard troops to be deployed to provide support. Some critics have expressed concern that sending U.S. service members to the border would escalate militarization of the border, making it more dangerous, not less.

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, “use of force involving firearms” dropped nearly 70 percent from 2012 to 2017. But this year, the numbers have risen. Agents used their firearms nine times from October to March of this year, up from four times the previous year.

Meanwhile, a Guardian analysis found that the federal government has settled at least 20 wrongful death claims on behalf of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the Border Patrol, paying more than $9 million to families of people killed since 2003. Their deaths occurred in incidents including shootings, beatings, the use of stun guns and collisions with vehicles.

Last month, Border Patrol agent Lonnie Swartz was acquitted of murder in the 2012 shooting death of a Mexican teen who threw rocks at law enforcement officers during an attempt to smuggle marijuana to Mexico. Swartz fired 16 times across the border from Arizona into Mexico. Human rights groups said the case marked the first time a U.S. Border Patrol agent was prosecuted in a cross-border shooting.

Astrid Dominguez, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Border Rights Center, said in a statement Thursday that the Border Patrol’s “history of violence against immigrants requires us to scrutinize every incident involving lethal force closely.” She demanded the Border Patrol expand its use of body cameras and equip every agent in the field.

“We call on the Texas Rangers and the FBI to conduct their investigation thoroughly and transparently,” Dominguez said.

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