Tuesday, May 8, 2007

The former commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, who helped organize the agency in 2003 as a part of the Department of Homeland Security, says the lengthy prison sentences handed two U.S. Border Patrol agents for shooting a fleeing drug-smuggling suspect were excessive.

Robert S. Bonner, a former federal judge and veteran prosecutor who also headed the U.S. Customs Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration, is the highest ranking current or former Homeland Security official to publicly criticize the prosecution and conviction of agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Alonso Compean.

“The sentences were way too severe,” Mr. Bonner told The Washington Times. “I hope that they will be substantially reduced.”

Ramos, 37, and Compean, 28, were sentenced in January to 11- and 12-year prison terms, respectively, for shooting Osbaldo Aldrete-Davila, a Mexican national, as he fled near Fabens, Texas, into Mexico after abandoning 743 pounds of marijuana.

Mr. Aldrete-Davila was located in Mexico by Homeland Security officials and returned to the United States under a grant of immunity to testify against the two agents. The agents, convicted in October after a jury trial, said they fired at the man after he pointed what they thought was a gun at them.

The sentences have drawn widespread criticism from some members of Congress, 90 of whom are co-sponsors of a bill by Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, calling for a congressional pardon. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican, has asked President Bush to pardon the agents.

Leaders of the Border Patrol’s rank-and-file agents also unanimously voted a no-confidence resolution against Chief David V. Aguilar, citing, among other things, his willingness to believe the “perjured allegations” of criminal aliens over his own agents in this case and others.

The no-confidence resolution won endorsement from all 100 top leaders of the National Border Patrol Council (NBPC), which represents all 11,000 of the U.S. Border Patrol’s nonsupervisory field agents, and targeted Chief Aguilar’s lack of support for field agents, several of whom have been prosecuted on civil rights grounds involving arrests of illegal aliens and drug-smuggling suspects.

“Front-line Border Patrol agents who risk their lives protecting our borders have every reason to expect that the leadership of their own agency will support them,” said T.J. Bonner, NBPC president. “When this does not occur, and instead they are undermined by their so-called leaders, no one should be surprised when they express a loss of confidence in those managers.”

Chief Aguilar has been publicly silent on the incident, although his boss, CBP Commissioner W. Ralph Basham — who succeeded Mr. Bonner — called the no-confidence “derisive, detrimental and blatantly unfair.”

Mr. Basham, who formerly headed the U.S. Secret Service, said the decision to charge the agents was made by federal prosecutors in Texas and approved by the Justice Department.

Mr. Basham said a grand jury found that the agents sought to cover up what they did and the lengthy sentences were mandated by federal sentencing guidelines. He said the case “had nothing to do with Chief Aguilar,” although it put him in a difficult position because it would have been inappropriate for him to make any public comments.

Mr. Bonner, the former CBP commissioner, did not elaborate on the sentences. He resigned in November to return to private law practice in Los Angeles and remains hugely popular among supervisors and agents at CBP and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

During an interview before he left his post, Mr. Bonner said protecting America against terrorists and other threats was possible, but only if Congress and the White House showed they were serious about dealing with the issue of border security “and dealing with it effectively.”

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