Sept. 10, 2004 – Outrage erupted in Mexico recently over revelations that the Mexican government had secretly approved a US Border Patrol plan to use "non-lethal" chemical weapons against undocumented immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border.
As images aired on Mexican television of US border agents in battle dress firing paint ball game-style rifles loaded with florescent plastic pepper pellets at targets, lawmakers condemned the program and demanded high level diplomacy on the issue. The circulated video also showed separate images of a Mexican lifting his T-shirt to reveal welts and bruises on his chest reported to be from pellet impacts, the Defence & Strategic News reports.
The controversial weapons, known as "pepper ball guns," use compressed gas to shoot pellets filled with a cayenne-derived powder, which is released on impact and severely irritates the eyes, nose and skin, sometimes causing welts or other serious injuries.
"They are using our Mexican countrymen as targets in a modern, almost festive hunt with rubber bullets," said Mexican lawmaker Cesar Camacho, a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
US Border Patrol spokesperson Mario Villareal told The NewStandard that Border Patrol agents have used pepper ball guns 204 times since 2002. The Border Patrol insists that the weapons are intended only to be used in instances when immigration agents are in danger, not to prevent undocumented immigrants from entering the country.
When asked to provide figures on the number of injuries Border Patrol agents have sustained since they began using the pepper guns compared to when they did not have them, Villareal said he did not have such facts on hand. He also said he did not have information about comparisons between the use of live ammunition against undocumented immigrants before and after the use of the pepper ball guns.
Instead, Villareal told The NewStandard that the Border Patrol was "on the front line, protecting Americaâ€™s security from terrorists," and thus, he said, the use of pepper guns did not have to be justified with statistics.
In July, according to the Associated Press, Texas Border Patrol officials in El Paso purchased and distributed fourteen of the pepper-shooting guns at $300 each. The guns, first used by the US Border Patrol in 2001, are already part of what is called the Border Patrol's "non-lethal" weapon arsenal in Arizona and California.
Doug Mosier, another Border Patrol spokesman, told the AP that more guns will be purchased next year so that each of the twelve stations in New Mexico and far West Texas have two guns.
The Border Patrol apparently has the blessing of Mexican President Vicente Fox, who, according to the Mexico City daily La Jornada, agreed to the use of "non-lethal" weapons in bilateral meetings back in June 2001.
Controversy began in Mexico over the use of the weaponry when the Mexican Foreign Relations Ministry called the new purchase of additional pepper ball launchers an "alternative" to firearms in an August 10 press release.
The next day Mexican congressional representatives from all major parties, who say they were unaware of the 2001 accord until the Ministry press release, demanded in a letter that President Fox change his position and urged the US not to use any weapons against undocumented Mexicans crossing the border, calling the use of such weapons a flagrant violation of human rights, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.
Much of the Mexican media has also been incensed. A number of editorials have condemned Foxâ€™s approval of the pepper ball guns. La Jornada wrote a disparaging August 12 editorial, an excerpt of which was quoted and translated in the New York Times. Its most critical passage read:
Fox doesn't seem to understand that our compatriots that go to our neighboring country in search of work are not criminals but productive individuals that with their efforts are able to make an essential contribution to the US economy and also with their remittance payments, are able to maintain the Mexican economy as well, which is devastated by the ineptitude and the corruption of various consecutive Mexican Presidential administrations, including the present one. There is not, as a result, any reason to barrage our compatriots with whichever class of arms, lethal or not.
After demands that US officials meet with Mexican government officials for high-level diplomatic consultations on the issue, US Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega met with Mexican Ambassador Carlos de Icaza, an official at the US Embassy in Mexico confirmed to the AP.
The Bush administration has not addressed the issue in any significant way, but the presidentâ€™s Latino nephew, George P. Bush, called the Border Patrolâ€™s policy "reprehensible" while stumping for his uncle in Mexico, the AP reported last month. He tried to deflect blame from President Bush and instead faulted "some local [Immigration and Naturalization Service] guy who's trying to be tough, act macho."
The AP reports that Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez appeared in front of the Mexican Congress last month and announced that the Fox administration was going to consider helping afflicted victims of pepper ball launchers sue US officials for improper use of the weaponry. Derbez did clearly stop short, however, of meeting congressional demands to stop the practice altogether.
In the US, officials have sought to paint the matter as a mere mix-up, as many Mexican media outlets have translated the pepper guns as balas de goma which literally means "rubber bullets" in English. Rubber bullets, a different type of weapon, have been known to cause death or serious injury when fired at close range or if they hit vulnerable areas of body tissue.
Picking up on this theme, US Border Patrol spokesperson Gloria Chavez called the issue a mere "misunderstanding" and a case of "mass confusion." Chavez explained to the AP that the pepper ball guns were "always intended only to be used when there was a situation of danger, exclusively to prevent violent harm to the officer or others. It would seem that some people have assumed it would be used to stop people coming into the country."
Spokesperson Villareal said that two to three border agents die every year and that since Fiscal Year 2002, agents have been assaulted 604 times.
Nonetheless, no one has yet offered first hand evidence, such as interviews with victims of actual pepper ball shootings, to either prove or disprove official claims that the guns are only used in self-defense and have not caused any serious injuries.