Where Do They Go To Get Their Lives Back?

by Diane Dimond on January 24, 2009


Former Border Agents Ignacio Ramos (left) and Jose Compean

For nearly two and a half years they’ve been in solitary confinement for their own safety. They will soon be released thanks to outgoing President George W. Bush’s rare commutation of their ten year mandatory sentences.

Mr. Bush should have gone one step further and granted former U.S. Border Patrol Agents Jose Compean and Ignacio Ramos complete presidential pardons.

They were convicted of a 2005 assault after they confronted a drug smuggler at the U.S. – Mexican border who was trying to sneak a van full of his poison into our country.  There was a pursuit and as the drug dealer ran he was shot in the buttocks. Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila wasn’t killed or even grievously wounded. Later it was determined the Mexican born Aldrete-Davila had been unarmed. Interesting that he would attempt to cross the border with nearly 800 pounds of marijuana and not be armed, most smugglers are. The guards would testify they saw “something shiny” in the suspect’s hand and genuinely feared for their lives.

Aldrete-Davila got free American medical attention and immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony against the two agents. So he could help prepare the case against them he got a “humanitarian visa” which allowed him to come back and forth across the border legally. He also sued the United States for 5 million dollars for what he said was the agent’s “violation of his civil rights.” His best ammunition was that Compean and Ramos had lied to their supervisors about specific details of the confrontation.

Four months before the agent’s trial was to begin guess who got picked up at the border trying to smuggle in a van load of drugs? Yep, Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila. The jury in the case against the two agents never heard about the second smuggling attempt.

Federal prosecutors in Texas were adamant about pursuing this case and painted a portrait of Aldrete-Davila as a struggling one time offender. Also working against Ramos and Compean was the on-going struggle between pro-immigration and anti-immigration forces in the country. Both sides held up these two border guards as a symbol of everything that was wrong with the country’s immigration policy.

The guards were found guilty and the charge carried a mandatory 10 year sentence because a gun was used in the commission of the assault. Of course, their job required them to carry guns and they were trained to use them if they felt their lives were in danger. Even though they both had clean work records their actual sentences were even harsher than the mandatory 10. Compean got 12 years, Ramos was sentenced to 11 years.

Within a matter of weeks they will be released from their solitary confinements to return to the loving arms of their anxious families. But they will breathe free air again stripped of some of the freedoms the rest of us have. Because Mr. Bush’s last act of clemency was to grant them a commutation and not a full pardon they will live restricted lives. To borrow a phrase from former Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan, caught up in a government larceny scandal in 1987 and exonerated, “Where do these men go to get their lives back?” They certainly cannot return to their jobs or ever find federal employment again. Few employers want to hire ex-cons.

And there’s an everlasting effect for the rest of us too. The signal sent to every other U.S. Border Patrol Agent is that if you face a sticky situation on the job the rights of the drug dealer, the illegal alien, the outsider who has chosen to break our laws to enter America may trump theirs.

Given that kind of handicap what kind of recruit will the U.S. Border Patrol attract now? Those who figure it is just a place to lay low, put in twenty years, and be guaranteed a federal pension? Will those brave men and women who selflessly put their lives on the line to keep the country safe even want to join now?

There’s an ironic ending to this saga for the man who decided to try to bring massive quantities of drugs into America not once, but at least twice. Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila is now a resident of a prison in El Paso, Texas. He’s serving a 57 month consecutive sentence on charges of smuggling a ton of marijuana into the United States. Some people never learn.

Three years after that fateful confrontation in the desert it really comes down to one basic point. To whom do we give the benefit of the doubt in a situation like this – The bad guy or the guys who work every day trying to keep our country safe?


DianeDimond January 25, 2009 at 6:44 am

Albuquerque Journal reader Betty C. in Tucumcari, New Mexico writes:
"I would like to say "Thank You!!!" for your excellent article in the Saturday, January 24 Albuquerque Journal about US Border Patrol Agents Jose Campean and Ignacio Ramos. It's time some one put the whole true story out there for people to read. Yes, they deserve full pardons. Thank God they are at least going to be out of prison soon.

You are absolutely right about the new hires to the Border Patrol being afraid to do their jobs. It is happening right now.

Again, thank you for your article. Keep up the good work.

Patti Petow January 25, 2009 at 8:01 pm

I'm happy that you went with your gut and wrote yet a second article on this miscarriage of justice. After reading in more detail about this situation, it is apparent that U.S. Border Patrol Agents Jose Campean and Ignacio Ramos should have been fully pardoned. I do have a question that you may be able to answer for me. Now that their sentences have been commuted, do they have the right to appeal for a pardon or even expungement so that they rightfully regain the same freedoms that we have? Again, in my opinion, these gentlemen acted righteously and within the law and should be able to return to their former places in society. Great story! Thank you.

Diane January 25, 2009 at 4:25 pm

Patti – Yes, these men can apply for a full pardon in the future. In general terms pardon requests are usually reviewed by the Presidential Review Board only after the convict is out of prison five years.

DianeDimond January 26, 2009 at 5:28 am

Reader Robert G. writes:

"Contrary to your view, I think that a Presidential commutation for Jose Compean and Ignacio Ramos was the proper course of action. I also think that this is one of those situations where you may not have the facts and are arguing the emotions of the issue. You have brought up the unfortunate reality that the prosecutors had to parole Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila (I'm not going to call him a victim), a real lowlife scumbag, into the country in order to prosecute Compean and Ramos; that he continued to smuggle drugs and is now in prison (and I hope the only taxpayer money he sees is what is used on his detention expenses) and the struggle between pro and anti-immigration forces. But, in the end, Compean (especially) and Ramos did something wrong and they do not deserve to not have some of the freedoms the rest of us have.

Before I go further, I want to say that I spent 28 years in Federal law enforcement including 5 in the Border Patrol not 50 miles from where this event occurred.

One of the facts that I rarely see reported in the columns discussing this event is that, after chasing the drug smuggler in his van on a border highway, Jose Compean acually had Aldrete-Davila in custody. Other Border Patrol agents who were in the nearby area were hazing Compean about the chase and calling for him to dish out some retribution to Aldrete-Davila for leading him on a chase. Compean obliged by levelling a butt stroke of his shotgun in the direction of Aldrete-Davila's face. But his missed and fell to the ground. (I don't think you condon this type of law enforcement) Aldrete-Davila, understandably not wanting to hang around to see what else Compean had in mind, headed for the border just yards away. Once Compean had recovered some of his composure, he emptied his semi-automatic handgun in the direction of the fleeing suspect. Ramos, who I understand, may not have witnessed all the preceeding activity, proceeded to support his brother agent and fire one shot, hitting the suspect.

Now, whether the agents actually saw Aldrete-Davila with a weapon or had a reasonable expectation that they were in danger depends a great deal on their credibility. Even if the agents did not believe that their fire had hit the suspect, they had to report this event. One agent had fired his weapon multiple times at a person, not a rabbit or a coyote, and the way things are now in the Border Patrol, an agent always has to report a discharge of his weapon. There were witnesses. Approximately 800 pounds of marijuana were seized. No report, little or no credibility. And by the way, at the time of the vehicle chase and subsequent shooting, the agents did not know there was marijuana in the van.

The bottom line is, and I think you would agree, you just cannot have any law enforcement agents shooting at fleeing suspects that do not appear to pose a danger to the agents or anyone else.

To some extent, I thought the punishment meted out to these agents far exceeded reason. Sometimes I think an administrative action would have been more appropriate, but what if this event was a manifestation of their inherent poor judgment and they did it again resulting in the death or serious injury to an innocent person. Frankly, I feel bad for Ramos who I think was a victim of the ineptitude and poor judgment of Compean.

You know, Diane, that right is right and wrong is wrong and what these agents did was wrong. It was the punishment that was out of whack and so the commutation is the right course of action. I don't think we want to endorse Senator Feinstein's point of view that our border agents should be able to shoot at drug smugglers on the border. I'm sure she would not support San Francisco police shooting at drug dealers in her city.

Lyn January 27, 2009 at 12:59 am

For once, I really don;t know what to say about this….particularly after reading Roberts comments. I persnally do not know enough to comment but am interested in reading everyone's views on this. Diane, what do you think of Robert;s insight on this?

Janet Turner January 29, 2009 at 11:30 pm

I would have to say I am with Lyn on this. When I read your column, Diane, I was really upset that yet again the good guys get in trouble for actually doing their jobs and a criminal gets immunity…that in itself is a mystery to me… but when I read Roberts letter….I really had to say hang on. Something is just not right about this. They wanted a criminal to turn evidence ((and walk free) against two people who were doing their jobs? Fishy.

Janet Turner January 30, 2009 at 12:35 am

I need to add a continuation to this……..I firmly believe that if one of the two agents did something wrong..they should be dealt with accordingly….what I do not understand is Aldrete- Davila was bringing drugs into our country that will more than likely end up in and around our schools and he gets to walk. This is where I would have to disagree with Robert. Stop it before it gets here. I have no smpathy for a drug smuggler or whether he gets "hurt" smuggling. I commend the officers….but still when your take an oath to uphold the law………then you need to do so.

Lyn January 31, 2009 at 12:41 am

Janet, you are so much better at putting things into perspective as I am. I always know what I mean but struggle to get the wording right. Completely agree with you on this one.

DianeDimond February 8, 2009 at 10:39 pm

Albuquerque Journal Reader Stan T. writes:

"Hello Diane. This has taken longer to write than I originally planned but I wanted to send you a huge thank you for the article in the Albuquerque Journal you wrote on the two border agents. The case was a great poster child project as one of the most absurd , misguided, legal cases that came out of the Bush years. The agents should have been given medals for doing a great job instead of being prosecuted. And you were absolutely correct when you said the agents should have been given a full presidential pardon. I regret that the federal prosecutors that were responsible for this example of legal bungling are not required at some point to put their own lives on the line, having to guard our southern border. Let them walk a mile in the agents shoe's before they attempt something as idiotic as this. In closing, let me say again, thank you for a reporting job well done."

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: