Questions are emerging about whether a Saturday night incident in West Texas that left a Border Patrol agent dead and another injured was an attack — as Republican politicians and Border Patrol union officials have said — or an accident.
A federal official told The Associated Press that the agents might have accidentally fallen down a 14-foot culvert near Interstate 10 in Van Horn, and Culberson County Sheriff Oscar Carrillo told The Dallas Morning News that investigators believe it might have been an accident, with the possibility that both agents might have fallen down an embankment in the dark.
The FBI, which on Tuesday offered a $25,000 reward for information helpful to its investigation, has classified the incident as a “potential assault on a federal officer,” but it has not yet determined whether there was an assault, said Jeanette Harper, a spokeswoman for the bureau’s El Paso office.
But that hasn’t stopped some from making political hay out of the incident. Gov. Greg Abbott has offered a $20,000 reward for tips about the “murder,” U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, bemoaned the “ongoing threat that an unsecure border poses,” and President Donald Trump took to Twitter to use the incident to push for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“We will seek out and bring to justice those responsible. We will, and must, build the Wall!” Trump wrote.
The agent who died was 36-year-old Rogelio Martinez. He is survived by a fiancée, a son and three step-children, according to a statement from Victor Velazquez, acting chief of Customs and Border Protection. The incident took place at about 11:20 p.m. Saturday, and Martinez died in a Van Horn hospital early Sunday.
The second agent, who has not been named and reportedly has no memory of the incident, was in critical but stable condition on Tuesday afternoon.
Both had traumatic head wounds, according to the FBI’s poster for the $25,000 reward.
Although investigators have not offered details on the incident, officials from the National Border Patrol Council, the union for agents, have insisted that it was an attack. After reports emerged Tuesday questioning that narrative, union spokesman Chris Cabrera did not back down.
“My thought on this is there’s no way a fall from where they were at would have been consistent with the injuries they had. Their heads were beaten pretty badly with rocks or stones,” Cabrera told the American-Statesman. “For anybody to speculate and say that it was an accident, I can’t begin to think what they’re thinking. I don’t know what the purpose is.”
Cabrera said he was basing his conclusion on what he heard from Border Patrol agents who responded to the incident.
The president of the union, which last year broke the organization’s tradition of not making presidential election endorsements to support Trump’s campaign, said Tuesday on CNN that he did not have a problem with Trump using the agent’s death to build support for the wall.
“We do need barriers in strategic locations, which is exactly what we’ve been saying,” said Brandon Judd, the union’s president. “You have to illustrate examples of why a wall would be needed, so I also approve of his tweet.”
Martinez, he said, was likely killed by immigrants in the country illegally who saw him coming and “jumped out and they attacked him.”
“I believe that he was ambushed. The facts, I think, will bear that out,” he said.
But Carrillo, the sheriff, said investigators are encountering a different reality.
“The evidence is not obvious as to what happened out there,” Carrillo told the Morning News. “The injuries to (Martinez), after talking to his doctors, were consistent with a fall. Very consistent with a fall.”
Harper said the FBI will not address speculation about the incident.
“The FBI is not a political organization so we are just concentrating on the investigation at hand,” she said.
The bureau on Tuesday had bloodhounds search for scents at the scene and is following up on many tips it has received from the public, she said. Agents are searching in the Van Horn and Fort Stockton areas for anyone possibly connected to the incident.