Former U.S. Border Patrol agent Ignacio “Nacho” Ramos wakes up in the middle of the night expecting a guard to shine a flashlight in his face. Jose Alonso Compean, his colleague, still has nightmares that he’s not really home.
It has not been easy readjusting to life outside their one-man prison cells where they spent the last two years of their lives in segregation.
Since the commutation of their sentences by President Bush on his last day in office, the former agents, who were charged with the non-fatal shooting of a Mexican national after he abandoned a load of marijuana near the border, are learning to live in the world again.
Since being released from prison on Feb 17, both men were confined to house arrest for 31 days and were barred from speaking to the media until their sentences ended Friday.
In an exclusive interview with The Washington Times, the two men, now fighting to have their convictions wiped off the record, spoke of their ordeal since the incident in Fabens, Texas, in 2005 that changed their lives.
Mr. Ramos and Mr. Compean were convicted of causing serious bodily injury, assault with a deadly weapon, discharge of a firearm in relation to a crime of violence, and a civil rights violation. They were sentenced to 11 and 12 years in prison, respectively.
Mr. Ramos’ attorney, David Botsford, has asked the Supreme Court to review the convictions and an answer as to whether the court will review the case is expected within a week, the agents said.
“It’s been tough,” Mr. Ramos said by telephone.
“Growing up as a kid your parents tell you don’t do anything bad because you could end up in prison. I didn’t do anything bad but there I was,” Mr. Ramos said. “I love my country, still do, and still I would sit in the prison cell [and] wonder, how did I end up in a place I never thought I would be in million years.
“But I had faith in God, I had my family and I had so many people from across the country that never forgot about me. It pulled me through.”
The two men served their prison sentences from Jan. 17, 2007, until last month.
“I wake up sometimes out of my sleep and wonder what if,” Mr. Ramos said. “What if no one ever heard about my story? What if no one ever knew what really happened that day? We would still be sitting in prison. Our children wouldn’t have fathers, our wives wouldn’t have husbands.”
The Times has documented the plight of the agents in more than three dozen stories since October 2006. Several members of Congress called on Mr. Bush over the years to either pardon the agents or commute their sentences and at one point, U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton in Texas, whose office prosecuted the case, said in an interview with The Times that the “punishment was high” but Congress had mandated the sentences.
The case became a national cause celebre, with border security activists garnering the signatures of more than half million people asking the president to pardon or commute their sentences.
For Mr. Sutton and Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah Kanoff, who successfully prosecuted the case, it was a matter of two federal officers violating the civil rights of Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila, a Mexican citizen who later was convicted of transporting marijuana across the border in a second load.
Ms. Kanoff said in a 2006 interview the agents violated the Border Patrol’s pursuit policy and should have never attempted to apprehend the drug smuggler in the first place. Ms. Kanoff could not be reached for comment on the presidential commutation.
On July 28, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans rendered a 46-page opinion upholding the convictions on several of the major counts except the obstruction of justice charges for tampering with an official proceeding.
However, it is the federal gun charges — the discharge of a firearm in relation to a crime of violence — that added 10 years to their sentences. Mr. Botsford has petitioned the Supreme Court to review the charges that were upheld.
The agents were convicted of shooting Aldrete-Davila in the buttocks as he fled across the Rio Grande after abandoning a van loaded with $1 million of marijuana. They argued during trial the smuggler was armed and they shot him in self defense when he pointed something shiny at them.
Prosecutor’s said Aldrete-Davila was not carrying a weapon and he testified against the agents at the trial. He also testified that he was only smuggling to help his sick mother in Mexico. The prosecutors also argued that the border agents didn’t report the shooting and that Mr. Compean’s picking up several spent shell casings was evidence that he was trying to hide something.
Aldrete-Davila was charged and convicted last year for smuggling a second load of marijuana into the U.S. Prior to his arrest by the DEA, he had received full medical treatment from the U.S. government and a border crossing card that allowed him to come into the U.S. at his leisure.
The agents’ story raised questions on the role of U.S. law-enforcement officers patrolling the border, where violence has risen to such extraordinary levels that senior officials in President Obama’s administration have called it a major national security concern.
The two agents said they had never expected to be at the center of the storm.
“I’ve learned to not believe everything I read or hear when it comes to arrests,” said Mr. Compean. “When I was in law enforcement, I would hear people say they were innocent or set up but most of us didn’t believe it. It wasn’t until it happened to me that I wondered how many other people are sitting in cells who are innocent.”
The former agents, who have three children each, said it was their faith in God and the love of their family, friends and strangers that got them through the toughest times.
Mr. Ramos said his three young sons are his inspiration to keep fighting the convictions.
“I’m not a famous baseball player or football player,” he said. “We’ve been through a lot as a family but really the only thing I want is for my sons to look up to me and say, that’s my dad. I want them to know that we have strength when we stick together. I just want my boys to be happy.”
Mr. Compean said his only plans now are to take his children to the “park and take my wife out to dinner.” For now, he’s going to help his family and take over duties as a full-time caretaker for his father-in-law, who was in a car accident and was in a three-month coma.
“I have faith that something good will come from all of this,” he said. “It’s strange but everything now seems different. Just being with my family and being able to spend time with them is plans enough for me.”
Monica Ramos removed all the pictures and memorabilia of her husband’s work with the Border Patrol before he returned home last month. Her house is now filled with photos of the family and of friends, both old and new, who have supported them through “the worst and most miraculous time in their lives.”
Every week for the past two years, despite economic hardships and time constraints, she visited her husband in prison.
“We learned how to pray together as a family,” Mr. Ramos said. “It took me going to prison to learn how to pray as a family. In a sense, we grew stronger and we learned that miracles really happen despite the terrible things that happened over the last few years. We found each other again and I learned that life is precious and we shouldn’t take anything for granted.”