Mexican opposition legislators are up in arms over the US Border Patrol’s use of weapons firing plastic bullets filled with pepper powder against Mexican migrants as they cross the border illegally.
Although the nonlethal weapons have been used sporadically for at least two years, the issue was thrust into the spotlight with a recent video shown on Mexican television of agents in battle dress firing paint ball game-style rifles loaded with florescent plastic pepper pellets at targets.
“We will not permit these kinds of acts that violate human rights,” Sadot Sanchez, who heads the Senate’s human rights commission and is a member of PRI, the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, said Wednesday.
Last week, Zacatecas state Governor Ricardo Monreal fired off a telegram to US President George W. Bush, describing the use of the weapon as “xenophobic and racist” and “reminiscent of the Kristallnacht [purges] in Nazi Germany.”
The video shown this month also contained separate images of a Mexican lifting his T-shirt to reveal welts and bruises on his chest, presumably from pellet impacts.
The pellets are plastic-coated but break on impact, causing welts and releasing pepper dust. In Mexico, critics call them “rubber bullets.”
Mexicans are traditionally very sensitive about the relationship with their powerful northern neighbor. Millions of Mexicans live and work in the US and many first crossed the 3,200km border as undocumented migrants.
Hundreds of people die every year in treacherous border crossings and previous incidents of Mexicans being shot by US Border Patrol agents caused uproar here. The introduction of the pepper weapons was in part aimed at preventing fatal shootings along the border.
Agents of the US Border Patrol’s Tucson sector in Arizona, the most heavily crossed route for illegal migrants, have had the weapons for the past two years but officials say there are strict regulations on their use.
The weapons “are only ever used to defend yourself, another agent, or an innocent third party from assault,” spokesman Andy Adame said on Wednesday.
“They allow us to disarm migrants throwing softball sized rocks at agents, without using deadly force against them.”