SAN DIEGO, California—We’re in a dark and dangerous place when law enforcement officers think they can break the law with impunity.
The picture gets even darker and more dangerous when the law-and order-crowd sacrifices credibility and makes a mockery of their stated values to make excuses for their own lawbreakers.
We don’t have to be talking about some grand scheme to violate the law for personal gain that comes unraveled. Sometimes, law enforcement officers wind up in hot water for making bad decisions in the heat of the moment.
Which brings us to the seemingly never-ending saga of Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean, a pair of former Border Patrol agents who lost their badges, went on trial, testified on their own behalf, were convicted by a jury of their peers, and went to prison for what were supposed to be long stretches because of some very bad decisions they made on the afternoon of Feb. 17, 2005.
That was the day that Ramos and Compean shot, and wounded, an illegal immigrant drug smuggler—and instantly morphed into pop culture heroes for the anti-immigrant mob of cable-news hosts, GOP congressmen, nativist organizations, border vigilantes, right-wing bloggers and their fans who rail against immigration—both legal and illegal—because they want to turn back the demographic tide and make America white again.
In a court of law, Ramos and Compean had neither the law nor the facts on their side. But in the court of nativist public opinion, they had two things going for them: first, that the person they shot was a low-life career criminal who lacked the legal status to be in the United States in the first place, and he was shot while committing a crime; second, that his shooters were Hispanic, the kind of fact that gets seized upon by racists who like to pretend they’re not racist.
Let’s just say, if the agents had been named “Smith” and “Jones,” I doubt the story would have gotten as much attention as it did.
I certainly don’t think that we’d still be talking about the case all these years later. Nor do I think that the disgraced agents would have won the heart of Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-CA, an immigration hardliner.
Fun fact: The San Diego congressman is, along with his wife, currently on the business end of a federal indictment for allegedly misusing at least $250,000 of campaign funds for personal expenses including his family’s dental work, golf outings, video games, groceries, expensive meals out as well as vacations to Italy and Hawaii. The couple pleaded not guilty to the charges, and they were released on a $15,000 bond while awaiting trial.
Meanwhile, Ramos and Compean were sentenced to 11 years and 12 years in prison respectively.
However, they only served about two years. In January 2009, on his final day in office, President George W. Bush commuted their sentences. At the time, a senior administration official said that Bush, upon reviewing the case, believed that while it was true the agents deserved punishment for violating their oaths to uphold the law, “the sentences they received were too harsh” and “they, and their families, have suffered enough for their crimes.”
Not satisfied with that, Hunter has been urging President Trump to grant Ramos and Compean a full pardon with all the trimmings, which would expunge their personal records of the felonies.
I’ve covered this story from the beginning, and I can say this much: Ramos and Compean are as guilty as sin.
The story has not changed over the last 14 years. On Feb. 17, 2005, at about 1:00 pm, while on patrol on the U.S.-Mexico border, near the small town of Fabens, Texas, Ramos and Compean spotted a suspicious van—one that turned to be hauling 700 pounds of marijuana into the United States. Once he spotted the agents, the driver of the van—Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila— abandoned the vehicle and, according to investigators with the Department of Homeland Security, put his hands in the air and tried to surrender.
Aldrete-Davila was unarmed, and we know this because the agents themselves confirmed it at trial. They said that, as they approached the van and he began to run, they took note of his hands, and saw no weapon.
Instead of taking the suspect into custody, investigators found, Compean swung at him with the butt of his shotgun and missed. Aldrete-Davila ran across the border, and Ramos and Compean began shooting.
Compean fired at least 14 rounds and Ramos fired once, hitting Aldrete-Davila in the buttock. The smuggler then hobbled away into Mexico to heal his wounds. The agents collected and disposed of the shell casings, didn’t announce the shooting to the dispatcher on the radio, never told colleagues or supervisors about the incident, and filed official reports that made no mention of it.
So, for those keeping score at home, we now have two border patrol agents who shot and wounded an unarmed Mexican illegal immigrant and drug smuggler and then tried to cover it up and pretend it never happened by destroying evidence and falsifying reports. All in a day’s work.
And that’s where the story would have ended if not for the comadre grapevine. Mex-America is a small world, and it just so happens that Aldrete-Davila’s mother, Macaria Aldrete-Davila, who lived in Chihuahua had a lifelong friend named Gregoria Toquinto, with whom she had grown up in a small village in Mexico. And one day, not long after the shooting, Macaria is telling Gregoria about how her son, Osvaldo (who probably told his mom nothing about the drugs and claimed he was up north on a business trip) had been crossing into the United States, and how he’d been shot in the backside by a couple of Border Patrol agents. Seems the bullet was still lodged in his groin, and he needed medical attention. Quite the telenovela, que no?
Toquinto then shares this information with her son-in-law who lives in Arizona where he works as—wait for it—a Border Patrol agent. Quicker than you can say “desmadre,” there’s an internal investigation by the Department of Homeland Security. And the rest is history. With a dash of folklore.
My favorite part of this story? The fact that the federal jury that eventually convicted Ramos and Compean on five out of six criminal charges including assault with a deadly weapon, obstruction of justice, and violating someone’s civil rights heard both sides of the story. The jurors heard the agents’ testimony and then they heard from Aldrete-Davila—who was given a “humanitarian pass” by the U.S. government to re-enter the United States, legally this time, to get medical treatment. And, when it was all said and done, they found the Border Patrol agents less credible than a drug smuggler with a bullet in his ass.
Fun fact: Even after Ramos and Compean were convicted and went to prison, that humanitarian pass did not go to waste. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, Aldrete-Davila allegedly used it to bring more drugs across the border. You can’t make this stuff up.
There are no saints in this story. But there is a fair amount of cynicism. Over the years, a parade of anti-immigrant opportunists have wrapped themselves in the legend of two flawed border patrol agents to camouflage their real agenda—which is now, and has always been, to keep out of this country as many brown people as possible.
This is also Trump’s agenda. And so, as the latest opportunist to try to get mileage out of the tale of Ramos and Compean—perhaps as a distraction from his own legal troubles—Rep. Hunter is probably betting that he can get the president to ignore the facts, buy the fairy tale and pardon the offenders.
That could happen. But, for the sake of the integrity of the criminal justice system, let’s hope it doesn’t.