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U.S. Border Patrol Agent Lonnie Swartz Acquitted Of Second-Degree Murder

A U.S. Border Patrol agent who fatally shot a teenage boy across the border in Mexico was cleared of the most severe charge against him by a Tucson jury, Monday. The jury deadlocked on two lesser charges.

Lonnie Swartz sat unmoving as the judge announced the jury’s decision, his face as expressionless as it was a month ago when he sat for the first day of his trial.

Swartz was accused of murdering a 16-year-old boy in Mexico in 2012. Federal prosecutors argued that he shot Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, then reloaded and fired more shots, 16 times in just 34 seconds.

U.S. Attorney Wallace Kleindienst said he was disappointed.

"Very disappointed, for the family, for the victim, for the community. But it’s not over yet."

The jury acquitted Swartz of the most serious charge, second-degree murder, and deadlocked on the lesser charges of manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter.

"Why don’t you go talk to the jurors and tell us what they were thinking? That would help us out," Kleindienst said.

Swartz left the courtroom with his attorney Sean Chapman and did not respond to an interview request.

"At the next hearing, the government’s going to decide whether or not to pursue the charges, so hopefully we’ll find out then," said his lawyer, Sean Chapman.

To understand the complexity of this case, you need to visualize this stretch of border. Nogales, Arizona, sits well above Nogales, Mexico; there’s a 30-foot slope that the border wall stands on, and the border wall itself is 36 feet high.

The shooting occurred in October 2012. A group of drug smugglers had just dropped a load of marijuana worth about $60,000 on the Arizona side of the border and were trying to escape back over the fence into Mexico. Chapman argued that Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez and other young men tried to help them by lobbing rocks at border agents and police.

The wall here is made up of steel bollards a few inches apart. Swartz placed his gun between those bars and fired down that slope into Mexico, hitting the teen. Then he reloaded, walked to another section of the wall and fired again. Ten of the 16 shots hit the teenager, mostly in the back. Prosecutors say he died instantly, and they accused Swartz of acting out of malice.

Records show Swartz collapsed against a patrol vehicle and vomited. He said, "I shot and there’s someone dead in Mexico."

Swartz remains a Border Patrol agent, and representatives from the agency’s Tucson union appeared in court every day of his trial.

Tucson union president Art Del Cueto has long contended agents face a danger non-agents don’t understand.

"I had someone ask me the stupidest questions the other day: ‘Well, what agent has been killed by a rock so you can say that?’ Well, that’s a pretty sick statement from someone in the media to ask me that. Is that what it takes, an agent to get killed for this stuff to happen? The bottom line is you had individuals who were committing a crime, they were attacking a federal agent, the federal agent defended himself and defended the other agents," he said.

The teen’s family left the courthouse quietly, grandmother in tears.

Outside, protesters were lining up to decry the verdict.

Isabel Garcia is a longtime activist on immigration issues in southern Arizona dating back to the Clinton administration. She said she didn't expect Swartz would be found guilt had held out hope.

“Only because of the family. Only because of the family. Only because they expressed hope. Injustice, right?” she said.

In fact, Swartz is a rarity. He’s the only border agent that the U.S. government has tried to prosecute for murder in recent memory. Other agents have been prosecuted by local governments.

On May 11, lawyers will meet again and prosecutors will decide whether they will attempt to prosecute Swartz a second time. 

Fronteras Desk senior editor Michel Marizco is an award-winning investigative reporter based in Flagstaff.