Hundreds of Texas law enforcement officials lined the street in November 2017 for agent Rogelio Martinez’s funeral. (Marfa Public Radio / Carlos Morales)
More than two weeks later, there are still more questions than answers in the death of Border Patrol agent Rogelio Martinez. He died after he and a fellow agent were seriously injured while on patrol around Van Horn in West Texas. After the incident, prominent politicians wasted no time weighing in, saying the officers had been attacked. Senator Ted Cruz called it a quote “Stark reminder of the ongoing threat that an unsecure border poses to the safety of our communities.” President Donald Trump tweeted “We Will, and must, build the Wall!”
The investigation was quickly taken over by the FBI, which steps in whenever there’s a potential assault on a federal officer. Since then, they’ve released few details on the case. As Mallory Falk reports, those early statements by politicians may be part of the reason.
Because this is a sensitive story, few people are willing talk about it on tape.
“The lack of answers makes it really tough,” says Rush Carter, a border patrol spokesman with the Big Bend sector, where Martinez worked.“As we move forward and have to take care of our jobs and mourn the loss of Agent Martinez all at the same time.”
He says agents are eager to hear exactly what happened that night. They’re patrolling as usual – albeit “with a little bit of sadness in our heart,” says Carter. “We still are waiting on the FBI to fill in the blanks because everything else is gonna be speculation.”
And there’s been a lot of speculation. Almost immediately after Martinez died, politicians started tweeting condolences – and stating he’d been attacked. Governor Abbott said the agent was murdered and offered a reward to help catch the killer. Senator Cruz and President Trump also said Martinez was killed. Trump tweeted “We will seek out and bring to justice those responsible.”
Around the same time, Chris Cabrera with the border patrol union said “we understand from our agents that responded is agent Martinez and his partner were struck repeatedly in the head and face with a rock or rocks by either one or a number of individuals.”
Here’s the thing: None of this has been confirmed by the FBI…nothing beyond Martinez and his partner having head injuries. At a press conference a few days after the incident, FBI agent Emerson Buie chose his words carefully. “We are investigating this matter as a potential assault on a federal officer,” said Buie. “And we’re trying to gather the facts. And if the facts support that then we will pursue it legally. If they support that the incident was caused by something else, then
we’ll present that.”
The FBI representatives wouldn’t talk on tape for this story. But they did tell me they’re continuing to follow up on all tips from the public. The surviving agent working with Martinez that night hasn’t been named. Reportedly, he’s suffering from memory loss. And officials are raising doubts about those early claims that this was an attack. The Culberson County sheriff was one of the first responders on the scene. He’s said the evidence doesn’t point to violence and that Martinez might have fallen to his death.
So why, more than two weeks later, are there still so few answers? According to Victor Manjarrez, it’s not totally unusual. Manjarrez is a retired border patrol chief, now with the Center for Law and Human Behavior at UT El Paso.
“What makes it so difficult in cases of border patrol agents and in this particular case in Van Horn is they’re so remote areas,” says Manjarrez.
Plus, there weren’t any witnesses. Manjarrez says it’s also possible the scene was disturbed as first responders rushed in to help, rather than thinking about preserving evidence for a future investigation.
But what is more unusual about Agent Martinez’s death are those immediate statements from top politicians. Alfredo Corchado’s covering this story for the Dallas Morning News. Corchado’s been reporting on the border for decades and says he’s never seen anything like this.
“Where there’s a real rush to judgment,” says Corchado. “I think what shocked me from day one, from the moment it happened, was sense of certainty that this had happened, this was the way it happened…without any real factual information.”
And that could explain why the FBI is being so cautious.
“How do you come back after you have the governor of Texas Greg Abbott, you have the senator Ted Cruz, you have President Trump, you know, with such certainty that this is what happened. I mean how do you contradict them? And I think the best way, at least from what I’m told, is you
have to be 120% accurate. I mean you have to get to the truth.”
One other possibility Corchado’s heard from sources is Agent Martinez and his partner might’ve been sideswiped by a tractor trailer. It’s a theory more people are considering, especially since the FBI announced late last week that they’re expanding their investigation.
The FBI’s now running digital billboards in four border states, seeking out drivers who passed through the Van Horn area the night both agents were injured. FBI officials say could take weeks or even months before they can issue a full report.