Injustice is felt at the human level. When we talk about our priorities and values – like justice, equity, and policy change, they can seem like lofty or nebulous ideas. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Our empathy and our primary orientation is for people. We know and we listen to our siblings in migration. It’s precisely because we listen that we care about injustice and policy, because we see the effects on individual lives.
One of the worst outcomes injustice can have is the loss of life itself. While our hearts are often heavy with stories of lives derailed, most of all we mourn the stories of lives cut short.
Alongside his mother and grandmother, Araceli Rodríguez and Doña Taide Elena, for 10 years we have been mourning the way that José Antonio Elena Rodríguez ’ life was cut short. Since his killing, his family has cherished his memory and sought justice for him, leaving almost no stone unturned. Justice has eluded them. Unfortunately, we know José Antonio’s story is not an isolated incident. The pattern of abuse and excessive force that killed José Antonio is rampant.
Today, we will honor José Antonio’s memory, his family’s fight to get him justice, and we will share about how his killing is part of a longstanding pattern of violence at the hands of U.S. officials. Most importantly, we will share a key step you can take to make sure that CBP is held accountable and kept from killing another innocent boy again.
José Antonio’s family have said that they never want this horror to happen to others, and we agree. This is one of the many reasons why we must push for transparency, accountability, and reform of CBP. Even though The Supreme Court ruling may disagree, we believe that people should be accountable for their actions, even if a border separates the perpetrator and sufferer of harm.
Memories: What Happened to José Antonio Elena Rodríguez
José Antonio Elena Rodríguez grew up in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. He lived in a neighborhood just South of the border wall. His family says that he was full of joy and adored sweets, especially chocolate. He was especially close to his older brother, Diego.
On the night of October 10, 2021, he was shot and killed by a Border Patrol agent mere blocks from the comedor. The agent, Lonnie Swartz, stood in Nogales, Arizona, and slipped his gun between the slats of the border fence. Within 34 seconds, he had emptied his clip and fired 16 rounds. Ten of those rounds struck José Antonio.
When José Antonio’s family found out what had happened, they were devastated. His brother Diego found out when he saw the morning paper in Nogales, Sonora. On the front page was a photo of his brother lying face down, with the headline about the shooting.
“Look, it’s Toñito,” a family member recalls Diego saying through tears.
When José Antonio’s mother heard the news, she relayed it to her mother-in-law, Doña Taide Elena. Soon after, KBI connected with these two women. We have stood with them as they fight for justice ever since.
10 Years Later and Still Mourning
José Antonio’s family is still in pain, even after ten years they feel the ache of his loss. “I always say that ‘absent’ doesn’t mean ‘forgotten.’ Even though he isn’t here, he is still in our hearts and our thoughts. I have photos of him. I have his clothes. I have his tennis shoes. He’s not here physically, but I don’t want to say that I don’t have him. He is still my son in spirit, in soul, in thoughts, in words,” Araceli said in an interview with AZ Central.
His grandmother, Doña Taide, said in the same piece that she hasn’t been able to overcome his death because people still ask about him. She says she just has to keep reliving painful memories. More than anything, she believes justice would bring her a sense of closure and relief.
“I’m not going to close this chapter of my life until I’m convinced there are no other routes of justice for him and other victims of shootings like his,” she said.
Araceli and Doña Taide began their long road with a fight for information. They had to push long and hard simply for the name of the agent who killed José Antonio to be released. For years, many details of what happened that night, particularly on the U.S. side of the border, would remain concealed from them. They worked to rally the press in Mexico and the U.S. side to make sure José Antonio’s killing wasn’t buried or forgotten.
They succeeded in drawing attention to José Antonio’s egregious killing, but accountability remained elusive and painfully slow. In 2015, three years after José Antonio was killed, a federal grand jury indicted Agent Swartz for second degree murder and manslaughter charges. Ultimately, it took six years to bring Swartz to trial for these charges. After a series of trials, he was found not guilty.
On the day of the verdict, KBI issued a statement in support of the family. “Today’s verdict demonstrates the persistent obstacles to accountability in Border Patrol that remain, particularly when it comes to use of force,” it read. This statement remains heartbreakingly accurate, as the pattern of CBP abuse has persisted.
Perhaps even worse, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a similar case that Mexican or non-U.S. families in cross-border shootings had no standing to sue a Border Patrol officer. The ruling set a dangerous precedent for all others at the border. In essence, it furthers impunity for Border Patrol. If a U.S. official stood in the U.S. and shot someone in Mexico, justice could not cross the border. This ruling crushed the effort to hold Agent Swartz accountable via another legal pathway. In July 2014, attorneys had filed a lawsuit on behalf of Araceli, accusing agent Swartz of violating his civil rights. On March 2, 2020 the Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s ruling that José Antonio’s family could pursue a civil rights lawsuit against Agent Swartz in light of the new precedent they had created.
Justice was once again denied for José Antonio. We decry the lack of accountability and we are wholeheartedly dismayed by the fact that the abuse that killed him is commonplace among CBP officials, especially Border Patrol. You can read about this pattern of excessive force, and why reform has failed, by clicking here.
In the face of this daunting inequity, we applaud Araceli and Doña Taide’s courage and perseverance. We stand in solidarity with them, and have been honored to support many of their efforts and commemorations over the years.
La Lucha Sigue: Araceli and Doña Taide’s Next Steps
Araceli and Doña Taide hold onto hope – both that someone will be held accountable for José Antonio’s death and also for reforms that will prevent another person from suffering the same fate. They continue to explore any other options to hold Agent Swartz accountable for killing José Antonio. Every month for nearly ten years, they have organized and held a public vigil on the 10th to mark the date José Antonio was killed. In this way, they have kept his memory alive and testified to the lack of a resolution.
This year, we collaborated with them to offer a special mass to honor José Antonio’s memory and demand action on October 9th. Key faith leaders attended: Bishop Leopoldo of the Diocese of Nogales, Bishop Weisenburger of the Diocese of Tucson, and Bishop Emeritus Kicanas. The Mass was held at the site of José Antonio’s cross.
Speaking at the mass, Bishop Weisenburger said, “Jesus has compassion for those who suffer and promises them consolation. He has compassion for those who hunger and thirst for justice and promises that they will be satisfied. Keeping hope alive and that faith in God’s justice is not only a task for Araceli and Doña Taide, but for each one of those present here and for those who accompany us in spirit.”
In solidarity with Araceli and Doña Taide, we seek to heed that call.
Summary: Honoring José Antonio and Taking Action for Justice
José Antonio Elena Rodríguez was the victim of Border Patrol abuse. His family has suffered ever since. Adding to the trauma of his loss, Araceli and Doña Taide have had to face a denial of justice for him ever since. We share their hunger and thirst for justice.
At the same time, we share in their hope, too. We hope for justice, for accountability, and reform. We hope for changes and policies that will regard every life as having incalculable and innate worth. Finally, we cherish the hope that comes from our shared faith. We hope for the resurrection of the body in eternal life, and eagerly await the day when Jesus makes true his promise: that those who hunger and thirst for justice will be satisfied.
We believe that keeping this hope alive and cherishing the memory of José Antonio is a key way we can come alongside Araceli and Doña Taide. It is a call for each of us to be the beloved community and bear each other’s burdens. Even more so, let us work for policies that preserve life and honor each human’s worth and dignity. We will never forget José Antonio, and we know that an important way to honor him is by working to make sure what happened to him will happen no more.
Today, we invite you to take one step in bringing more justice by lifting your voice. Call both of your Senators (use the number 202-224-XXXX, and find the last 4 digits HERE), and your House Representative (phone list HERE) and ask them to invest in functional oversight of Customs and Border Protection.
Like Doña Taide, we proclaim that we will not desist until we are convinced that we have pursued every avenue for justice, both for José Antonio and each person in migration. The pervasive use of excessive force must end.