“Revenge really isn’t on anyone’s mind—having the actual perpetrator of this crime being brought to justice, that’s what we want,” said Ben Vik, spokesman for the Yuma Sector Border Patrol in Arizona. “We want the guy who did it.”
Agent Luis “Louie” Aguilar, 32, who was serving in the Disrupt Unit for the Yuma Sector, was patrolling the border at the nearby Imperial Sand Dunes recreation area on Jan. 19 when he was alerted that a red F-250 Ford pickup truck and a brown Hummer H2 had just crossed the border from Mexico at the dunes.
According to Vik, the vehicles had sped through the campground and north to the highway about two miles away, but then got spooked and turned back.
Aguilar and a fellow agent were back at the dunes laying down a spike strip in the road to thwart the suspected smugglers when the vehicles came into view. “There were civilians—off-road enthusiasts—in the area, and when the [Hummer] was coming toward Agent Aguilar’s position, a civilian started to enter the danger area. Agent Aguilar was attempting to warn them off when the Humvee veered from its direction of travel and ran Agent Aguilar down. He was killed instantly.”
Witnesses reportedly said the vehicle intentionally rammed into the agent at about 55 miles an hour, throwing the husband and young father “a distance away,” said Vik. The Hummer and pickup then fled back into Mexico. “[The other members of the team] went directly to Agent Aguilar.”
“It had quite an effect—it touched every agent here at Yuma sector. Louie was well liked and well known, respected. Again, one of those guys everyone counted on,” recalled Agent Weldon Boring, who also serves as the sector chaplain. “Losing someone as dynamic as Louie was a very big blow to us.”
TJ Bonner, head of the National Border Patrol Council, said Aguilar’s death “reverberated well beyond the Yuma Sector,” which is staffed by more than 900 agents. Reports abounded that he had been killed trying to protect the people at the recreation site, and campsites started to wave their own flags at half-mast.
“It was devastating to lose such a bright, promising young man in such a violent, senseless manner,” he added.
A killer set free
“Senseless” became the word of choice among the tight-knit Border Patrol community this summer when news broke in June that Aguilar’s accused killer was set free by Mexican authorities before the United States could extradite and charge him for his crimes.
“Quite obviously, it sparks a great deal of anger when a confessed murderer of one of your colleagues is allowed to walk free,” said Bonner in July. “[Mexico] was on clear notice that we had a very deep and abiding interest in making sure that individual was extradited to face justice in the United States.”
That “individual” is Jesus Navarro Montes, a 22-year-old also facing unrelated charges of border smuggling and human trafficking, according to news reports. He was picked in the Mexican town of El Yaqui three days after the incident at the dunes and charged with Aguilar’s murder as the driver of the Hummer.
Then, to the confusion of everyone, Laura Serrano, a Mexican federal judge in Mexicali, set Montes free on bail in June. The Mexican embassy claimed US prosecutors never requested extradition.
“We are shocked and appalled,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff stated after hearing Montes was now at large somewhere in Mexico. He promised that the department was working with the US Department of Justice and “a determined Mexican government” in “relentless pursuit of justice.”
Mexican officials were eager to present their side of the story.
“No arrest warrant was presented, no evidence was offered and no one from the US government contacted Mexican authorities concerning his extradition,” Ricardo Alday, spokesman for the embassy, told reporters July 14. “We couldn’t hold him with no evidence of a crime. We needed help, but we never got it.”
He added, however, that federal officials in Mexico City were unaware that Montes had been released, and that Mexico’s Attorney General had immediately vowed to re-arrest the man. Meanwhile, US authorities have been relatively silent on the extradition question, while a maelstrom of anger, fueled by demands for answers from Aguilar’s family, his coworkers—even Capitol Hill—refused to let the story die this summer.
Lawmakers demanded answers. “We understand there is an ongoing investigation; however, the information we are seeking should be publicly available as we are looking into the process of investigation and communication with the Mexican authorities,” said Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.), who is head of the Immigration Reform Caucus and in July demanded a “full accounting” of what went wrong by the White House and Justice Department.
As of mid-July, however, neither the White House nor Justice had complied, saying in two different letters to the caucus that providing more information on the case would compromise the investigation. A call by HSToday tothe US Attorney’s Office in San Diego elicited a similar response.
“As with all ongoing criminal investigations, we cannot provide details with respect to the nature and timing of possible charges against any possible defendant or defendants,” US Attorney Karen Hewitt said in a statement provided by her office.
Meanwhile, Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), who represents Aguilar’s hometown of El Paso, Texas, said he had personally spoken with the Mexican attorney general and planned to address the issue with Mexico’s Minister of Foreign Affairs at a conference in August. “As a former Border Patrol Sector Chief, I am especially saddened,” he told HSToday.
Aguilar’s father, Luis “Louie” Aguilar Sr., a bailiff for the 41st District Court in El Paso, shared his own frustration with reporters after the news of Montes’ release hit the airwaves. “It’s so damn corrupt,” he told the local ABC News affiliate in El Paso. “I just don’t know if we’re ever going to get a fair chance.”
Heartbreak in Yuma
Robbed of the person who fellow agents described as “first and foremost … a family man,” Aguilar’s family, which also includes his wife and two children—a boy, age 6, and girl, 5 —his mother, a sister and a brother, have cleaved to the Border Patrol community in mutual grief since that cold January morning.
“We are in constant contact with the family,” said Boring.
Vik shared an op-ed the Yuma agents wrote for the local paper shortly after Aguilar’s death.
“Not to speak of his last day, but rather celebrate his life,” they wrote, describing the high school athlete who had loved building things and seemingly had the energy and enthusiasm of 10 men.
In 2000, he had met his future wife, Erica, on her birthday. They were married and had their first child, Luis, a year later. In 2002, while he was attending the US Border Patrol Academy, daughter Arianna was born, and the four of them settled in Yuma, not far from his hometown of El Paso, as a new Border Patrol family.
“The life of a Border Patrol agent is not an easy one. Uncontrollable circumstances dictate that they work long hours, in a variety of terrain. Erica grew to understand this, as all Border Patrol spouses do. And she knew Louie would always do his best to try and be there for his family,” the agents wrote. But Aguilar, though remembered as the consummate husband, father, brother and son—did not come home. The Patrol community would circle and embrace them, channeling their raw emotion into ensuring the family wants for nothing, ever again.
“Having met his family, you really get a sense of what a great guy Louie was,” said Boring, who credits Aguilar with helping him adjust in his new job at the sector two years ago. He said that was typical. As a field-training officer, Aguilar affected more than one new kid on the block. “You couldn’t be around Louie without picking up that motivation and that desire and dedication. You could always go to Louie if you needed the help.”
Mexico, said Bonner, is suffering from considerable corruption that he blames for Montes’ release. That seems to be a popular theory, since news of the drug cartels’ influence and brutal intimidation tactics—even throughout the government and judiciary in Mexico—is not new.
“It’s obvious to me that the judge was either scared off or bought off,” charged Bonner, a former Border Patrol agent of 30 years. “This is how these drug cartels operate. I’m sure if the shoe had been on the other foot, Mexico would have been screaming bloody murder if a confessed murderer of one of their agents was released.”
Aguilar’s death comes at a time when there have been fewer recorded incidents of illegal crossings in the Yuma Sector. Agents credit the increased manpower in the field, improved infrastructure like fences, and focused leadership. However, according to Bonner, the number of assaults against agents has gone up nationwide—-over 800 since October 2007.
“This is going to be another record-breaking year,” he asserted. “This is a very dangerous job.”
The last Yuma Sector agent to have been killed in the line of duty was James Epling, 24, who drowned in the Colorado River on Dec. 16, 2003, while chasing foreign nationals who had come over the border illegally. There have been 104 border agents killed since 1919, said Bonner.
According to Vik, there is currently no way to fence off the 40-mile stretch of dunes in southeast California where Aguilar was killed. This makes the particular recreation area in question a popular crossing for border-jumpers. “Simply because the dunes change every time the winds blow, the face of the recreation area changes completely. Any fencing you put up there would disappear within a year.”
He said a special fence has been designed to “float” on the sands, and they are working on getting it up there now, after a slow start. “It would have been nice to have had it installed a year ago,”
he lamented. “It’s a big engineering challenge.”
It’s been a challenge getting back to normal, too. Agents insist they are not allowing the anger over Montes’ release to affect their jobs.
“You approach these things rationally after the initial shock wears off,” said Vik. “We just want to find the guy who did it.”
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