Dona Taide and husband Jose at their grandson's memorial. Photo taken by John Kurc.
I first saw her in 2019 in Washington D.C. To those concerned about Border Patrol brutality, she is known as Dona Taide. To her late grandson, Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, she was known as Abuelita (little grandma). She had traveled all the way from Nogales, Mexico to listen to arguments before the Supreme Court of the United States. Should the Elena family be allowed to file a civil lawsuit against Border Patrol agent Lonnie Schwartz for the death of her grandson?
I cannot say that I met her that evening simply because I never introduced myself at the small gathering. It would have been offensive of me to introduce myself at that time. Instead I sat near the back quietly drinking a soda, thinking of how strange it felt to have cookies and pizza while listening to this trauma. I crossed my legs and leaned to my right as I rested my head in my hand and prepared myself for what was to come. I was all balled up as tight as this big body could get, so that I could focus on every single word she uttered as my mind pictured the green uniforms and the border scene that I know so well. It did not matter how many times I heard it, how many articles I read on his death, I could not understand how Agent Schwartz came to kill Jose, a teenager, just a little boy really. I don't think I ever will. When she was done, I walked outside and stood in the cold D.C. winter looking at nothing and at everything as I waited for my friends to join me.
The second time I saw Dona Taide it was on a Zoom call. She'd heard of the former agent who speaks the truth about the people who got away with murdering her grandson. By then, she had finished taking the only path to justice that our government had prescribed for her and received her answer from our Supreme Court: no, she could not civilly sue Agent Lonnie Schwartz. The ten bullets that killed her grandson did not enter his body as he stood in the U.S. but as he stood in Mexico. The U.S. Constitution did not apply outside of the U.S. they said, and therefore no one could be held accountable for his murder. It did not matter that the gun was fired on the U.S. side.
I had done this several times before; met those who'd lost loved ones to my former agency. After getting through the normal introductions of who I was and where I had served, I asked for a moment to speak directly to Taide and asked for her forgiveness. Her reply, the response Anamaria Vasquez of the Border Patrol Victims Network translated back to me was that I had not pulled the trigger that day. I had not worn that uniform for more than 18 years.
"It's not about who pulled the trigger that day," I said. "Fact is that I wore that uniform. I helped to create the system that took Jose's life that day. I enforced those same laws and espoused the same rhetoric that allows agents to get away with murder, and for that, I ask for forgiveness from all I harmed and all those who've been harmed by my agency. Whether or not you forgive me is not the point. I feel I must ask for it." This brought her and others to tears. No one from the U.S. had ever expressed sorrow or asked for forgiveness.
Perhaps that was the reason she invited me to spend the morning with her that day in early July 2021. We walked south a few blocks from the border to a small flower shop so I could by a bouquet to leave at Jose's memorial at the spot he fell. Taide grabbed a small windmill looking decoration that seemed to be quite popular and fished around in her purse for her wallet.
"No, please let me pay for it," I insisted.
"You must let her do this. She needs to do this for her soul," I heard Anamaria say to Taide in Spanish.
Standing in the very spot where Jose fell dead, Taide and I looked up to the embankment her grandson's killer shot from. We looked at the cameras that recorded his death. It is a long way from where Jose was standing to where Agent Schwartz pulled the trigger. Anyone who physically stands where he fell gets the point that even if someone was throwing rocks, it would have been nearly impossible to hit anyone standing on the U.S. side. Rocks would have had to go up thirty feet and over another thirty feet of the wall or in between the bollards to get anywhere near the agents. The agents could have just as easily taken two steps back, and no one on the Mexican side would have been able to see them.
Standing where Jose was murdered in Nogales, Mexico. The white pole on the north side is the CBP camera that captured his murder.
It didn't matter that witnesses said the the unarmed teenager did not throw any rocks, or that the first bullet went into his back knocking him to the ground and killing him immediately or even that Agent Schwartz then emptied his magazine clip into the lifeless boy's body and reloaded to fire more bullets into him. It also didn't matter to anyone of the many U.S. judges that heard the case that Customs and Border Protection had video of the incident and refused to release the evidence or that then Commissioner James Tomsheck of CBP Internal Affairs stated the video showed Jose was not throwing rocks.
I need to repeat that: the then head of CBP Internal Affairs stated the CBP video showed Jose did not throw any rocks but they refuse to release the evidence to any court of law.
The sadness I have come to know so often from victims' families enveloped us as we stood around Jose's memorial. It feels heavier to me, almost suffocating, when I am in their presence as opposed to reading about it or discussing it on a Zoom call. Taide relives every detail making sure I completely understand. Grandpa Jose busies himself decorating the memorial with the flowers and windmill. He does not say much as is common among the men.
When I ask what Jose was like, her face brightens up, she stands a bit taller and a smile slowly stretches across her face. He liked video games and had decided to join the Mexican Army. When she asked why, he said there were a lot of good people in the army. "They couldn't all be bad," he had exclaimed. "He was like you that way," she said to me. I smiled knowing what she was getting at.
Jose walked this route nearly everyday at that same time. He'd come from their red house a few blocks away, up on a hill overlooking what was to become his memorial. He liked to meet up with his older brother who would just be getting off of work. As he turned the corner, Agent Schwartz' first bullet went into his back and he fell right where we stood. He may have never even known what had happened. One minute walking to meet his brother, the next he was gone. The other nine bullets added insult to injury, cruelty for cruelty sake. It was a rage killing.
"Why does this happen," she asked. "He was just a child."
I explained that agents are constantly exposed to racist propaganda in the academy and through the union. All migrants are seen as criminals and invaders of our country. Even though Jose was not a migrant, to hold an agent responsible for any death, even a U.S. citizens death, is not acceptable to the agency. They view themselves as more worthy than any other human being just because they wear that uniform. The agency also knows that if it starts holding agents responsible, even in a clearly egregious case as Jose's, it will open the flood gates to all the other atrocities they have committed.
"You're talking about the Critical Incident Investigative Teams?" she asked.
"Yes," I replied. "Once I prove that these teams exist in every sector and that they respond to every incident, whether the agent is on or off-duty, I hope we can get families to demand a new, independent investigation for their lost loved ones. These teams are illegal. They were used in my day to get rid of evidence and make every shooting a 'good shooting' as they say. Their existence is illegal because the Border Patrol does not have that authority, and then they obstruct justice and commit crimes to coverup or clean up the crimes committed by agents. Those are more crimes being committed to cleanup the original crime."
"Will Jose be one of those cases?" she asked.
"I hope so," I replied.
We walked along the border back towards the port of entry before hugging and saying our goodbyes. We passed a unit of Mexican military standing against a building looking as if they didn't know what to do. They're fresh young faces reminded me of mine as a young agent, filled with hope and pride at wearing a uniform and protecting our country.
I have been thinking on my time with Dona Taide since then. I had promised her that I would write about our visit, that I would not let people forget about her grandson. Every time I sit down to write, I get a few lines out and have to stop. It's all been said before whether in other cases or in this particular case. The extrajudicial killings of the Border Patrol are well documented, and still nothing changes. Yes, the revelation of the illegal teams is new. I feel hopeful this craven corruption will eventually lead somewhere, but a large part of me fears our Congress will not care. Accountability is not their custom.
The government decides how people like Taide and her family will grieve. Only the government is allowed to use violence indiscriminately to solve their problems. The systems, paths, that the government has designed assure that their violence falls within the laws they create. They dictate the terms of accountability, how and by whom the investigations are done and after years of being quiet and walking their path, the result is always the same: nothing to see, no charges to be filed, no restitution, no apology, not even a day off.
And I wonder at what point we will stop following their path and make our own.
Dona Taide and her grandson's mural, Jose Antonio. Photo taken by Joh Kurc.