A Year After A Border Patrol Agent Died In West Texas, Questions Remain

On a dark, moonless night, a week before Thanksgiving last year, 36-year-old Border Patrol agent Rogelio Martinez and his partner Stephen Garland were on duty along a rural stretch of highway in West Texas.

The two, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, were “conducting routine checks of culverts in the area,” about12 miles east of Van Horn.

What happened next that night has been the center of controversy and debate.

Garland called dispatch, reporting the two had sustained multiple injuries and were in need of assistance. Responding agents found Martinez at the bottom of a culvert. He was unconscious with several injuries to his head and body. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, Martinez was given medical treatment and transported to a nearby hospital, where an autopsy later determined he died of “blunt injuries” to the head.

But the manner of Martinez’s death, the autopsy found, was “undetermined.”

Garland, 38, had multiple injuries but survived. Officials have said he has no memory of what happened that night.

When reports of Martinez’s death first began circulating, elected officials described the event as an “attack,” suggesting the two Border Patrol agents were targeted that night by migrants who illegally crossed into the United States.

First responders found Martinez unconscious at the bottom of a culvert that night. Today, it has become a makeshift memorial to the fallen officer. (Photo Courtesy of John Burnett / NPR)

“Border Patrol Officer killed at Southern Border, another badly hurt,” President Trump Tweeted soon after Martinez’s death. “We will seek out and bring to justice those responsible. We will, and must, build the Wall!”

Texas. Gov. Greg Abbott offered a $20,000 reward to “catch this killer.” And Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said the event was a “stark reminder of the ongoing threat that an unsecure border poses to the safety of our communities and those charged with defending them.”

Shortly after the tweets and the calls to secure the Texas-Mexico border, Culberson County Sheriff Oscar Carillo — the lawman who was one of the first responders that night — said the death was likely an accident. He told the Dallas Morning News he thought a tractor-trailer could have accidentally sideswiped the two agents, who were feet away from Interstate 10.

“From the beginning, we were radioed to assist in the incident as an injury, not an assault,” Carrillo told the Dallas Morning News. “That’s the way it was communicated to us.”

In February of this year, the FBI reported its investigation — which included 650 interviews up to that point — “has not conclusively determined how Agent Martinez and his partner ended up at the bottom of the culvert and no suspects have been linked to this incident.”

The FBI did identify two brothers, who were considered persons of interest in the case. But through “forensic analysis,” the Bureau determined the two had nothing to do with Martinez’s death or Garland’s injuries.

In the same report, the agency offered details, which up to that point, hadn’t been publicly known. According to the FBI, when Garland called a dispatcher for help, he said, “We ran into a culvert,” “I ran into a culvert,” or “I think I ran into a culvert.”

Still, the local chapter of the National Border Patrol Council told Marfa Public Radio in February, after the report was released, that they maintained the incident was an attack.

“I think that if the FBI had any evidence or felt that this was anything other than an assault, they wouldn’t retain jurisdiction,” Lee Smith, president of the Big Bend chapter of the NBPC, said in February. “They don’t investigate on vehicle accidents that strike an agent, or another federal employee, law enforcement employee. That’s not what they do.”

Hundreds of Texas law enforcement officials lined the street in November 2017 for agent Rogelio Martinez’s funeral. (Marfa Public Radio / Carlos Morales)

The FBI says the investigation is still ongoing and wouldn’t comment on whether they have received any new information or potential leads. They are still, however, offering a $50,000 reward for information that leads to a resolution of the case.

But since the FBI’s update earlier this year, there have been no answers to what happened that November night.

Initially, the FBI suggested the investigation may take a handful of months. But now it’s unclear just how much longer it will take.

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About Carlos Morales

Carlos Morales is Marfa Public Radio's News Director, Border and Immigration Reporter, and Morning Edition Host.
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