Posted on August 25, 2004

Mexico May Sue U.S. Over Pepper-Ball Projectiles

AP,, Aug. 24

MEXICO CITY — Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez said Tuesday his government will consider helping migrants sue U.S. officials for improper use of so-called “pepper ball” non-lethal projectiles.

In an appearance before Mexico’s Congress, legislators urged Derbez to demand an end to the use of the pepper-filled plastic projectiles by U.S. Border Patrol agents. The pellets have sparked outrage in Mexico.

Derbez said U.S. agents did not appear to be using the air-fired balls to stop fleeing migrants — as feared — but only in confrontational situations. He refused to demand the weapons be withdrawn, but said Mexico is seeking consultations on the issue with U.S. officials.

Derbez said the Mexican government was ready to help migrants sue if they suffer from the improper use of the arms. In the past, Mexico has helped hire lawyers and investigators for such cases.

“What the Mexican government is not going to allow attacks on its citizens without immediately responding with a legal action on our part,” Derbez said.

The Mexican government has faced severe criticism from local media and rights groups who say “balas de goma” — literally, rubber bullets — are being used against undocumented migrants.

In fact, the round plastic projectiles are fired with compressed gas and are basically paintball pellets filled with pepper powder, an irritant intended to immobilize.

The powder irritates the eyes and nose for about 10 seconds to 15 seconds, and can be treated by flushing the irritated areas with water. The impact of the ball itself may also cause bruising, and most paintball players wear helmets and face masks to prevent a direct hit to the head or eyes.

The U.S. Border Patrol says it fired the pepper-balls in 81 instances during 2002-2003, and reported no deaths or severe injuries.

Rubber bullets are rubber-coated steel pellets usually fired with gunpowder, and can be lethal if fired from a short distance or if they hit soft body tissue.

The Border Patrol does not use rubber bullets as part of its normal equipment.