LAREDO, Texas – It’s the breakfast rush at La Finca Bruncheria & Cafe, and waiters hurry plates of pancakes and huevos rancheros to tables of Mexican businessmen in shiny suits, chatting families and locals.
Behind the bar, bartender Angie Martinez draws up latte art and pours glasses of papaya juice.
Asked about the U.S. Border Patrol agent about to go on trial for murder, she stops mid-pour.
“You mean the one who killed his girlfriend?” she says.
No, the other one.
“The one who killed the Guatemalan woman?”
Not that one, either.
“Oh, the one who killed the four women?”
Juan David Ortiz, 39, the former Border Patrol intel supervisor charged with killing four women over 12 days here in September 2018, is set to go on trial beginning Monday. The murders stunned this border community and raised questions about the agency’s ability to police its own ranks.
Ortiz's case, plus the string of other agents accused of murder just months before him, are not the only issues casting a shadow over the agency's longtime presence in Laredo.
His trial arrives as agents face historically high number of migrants crossing the Southwest border, especially in Texas. U.S. border authorities encountered more than 2 million migrants in fiscal 2022, some of whom repeatedly tried to cross the border – more than any other year on record, according to CBP statistics.
This month, Chris Magnus resigned as CBP commissioner after facing criticism from the Biden administration on how he was confronting the high number of crossings.
For years, CBP has also struggled with fully investigating and disciplining its own agents for using excessive force on the job, said Roxanna Altholz, co-director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. Federal law prohibits victims from successfully filing civil lawsuits against Border Patrol agents, making accountability of them even more difficult, she said.
A succession of cross-border shootings over the years has proven how challenging it is to punish Border Patrol agents for misdeeds, she said.
"There's lots to be concerned about," Altholz said.
While the string of deadly incidents involving border agents doesn't represent the hundreds of law-abiding employees of the Border Patrol’s Laredo Sector, it has darkened the city’s perception of the agency, said Jerry Thompson, a historian and author at Texas A&M International University in Laredo.
“It’s changed a lot,” Thompson said. “There’s less respect today than there was 20 years ago, less reverence, less admiration.”
A deadly year for Laredo
The Laredo Sector, which spans about 136 miles of riverfront on the Southwest border and encompasses 96 counties stretching to northeast Texas, was ensnared in a series of high-profile cases involving agents over a five-month period in 2018.
In April 2018, police arrested Ronald Anthony Burgos-Aviles, 33, a Border Patrol agent in Laredo, and charged him with the murders of Grizelda Hernandez, 27, and her 1-year-old son, Dominic. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty and his trial is tentatively set for January.
A month later, a U.S. Border Patrol agent shot and killed Guatemalan migrant Claudia Patricia Gómez González, 20, after she crossed the U.S.-Mexico border and hid in a vacant lot with other migrants in the nearby enclave of Rio Bravo. The ACLU of Texas in 2020 filed a lawsuit against the agent on behalf of Gómez under the Federal Tort Claims Act for wrongful death, among other charges. The lawsuit was paused later that year when the FBI began investigating the incident.
Then, in September 2018, prosecutors allege, Ortiz picked up four women along Laredo’s San Bernardo Avenue, drove them out to remote corners of the county and shot them with his government-issued handgun before dumping their bodies along dirt roads. All the victims were U.S. citizens and alleged sex workers who lived and worked along San Bernardo.
Ortiz was arrested after a fifth would-be victim allegedly escaped from his vehicle and alerted police.
He has pleaded not guilty to the charges and has been held in an isolated wing of the Webb County Jail. His trial begins on Monday in a San Antonio courtroom.
A spokeswoman with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which oversees Border Patrol, declined to comment on the Ortiz trial, saying the agency doesn't comment on pending litigation. A representative with the Laredo chapter of the national Border Patrol union also did not respond to a request for comment.
Border Patrol: A presence and an opportunity
In Laredo and other border communities, the dark-green-uniformed agents are omnipresent: Border Patrol agents are fathers, brothers, Little League coaches and churchgoers. They mentor area youth, participate in outreach programs at area schools and help out in local fundraisers.
In a city where the poverty rate is twice as high as the national average and high-paying jobs are hard to come by, a position with the Border Patrol is considered a coveted career. The uniformed agents are regularly seen lunching at local Pollo Palenque grilled chicken restaurants or pumping gas.
Maria Elena Guerra, who runs the online news portal LareDOSnews.com, has a nephew who works as a diesel mechanic for the Border Patrol and a niece who works in administration for the sector and knows several other people who work at the agency.
Though people didn’t automatically think all agents could be capable of such crimes, the case involving Ortiz did leave a strong impression on the community, she said.
“There was a huge amount of sympathy for the women [victims] and their families and how their lives were taken,” Guerra said. Ortiz “was very clever and intelligent, how he kept his cover while they were looking for him … He was somebody’s neighbor in a nice house in a nice neighborhood. That was the shocking part of it.”
The Ortiz murder trial
The stories of the four women and Ortiz’s alleged involvement with them will begin to unfurl Monday, as prosecutors argue their case and call witnesses in his trial – perhaps the most high-profile of the recent incidents involving Border Patrol agents in Laredo.
Ortiz was a 10-year veteran of the agency and a Navy corpsman who served in the Iraq war. In court filings, prosecutors allege he killed the four women – Melissa Ramirez, Claudine Luera, Guiselda Cantu and Janelle Ortiz – from Sept. 3 through 15 in 2018, befriending them, driving them out of town and shooting them with his agency-issued .40 caliber HK P2000 semiautomatic pistol. A motive is still unknown.
A fifth would-be victim – Ericka Peña – was similarly picked up but allegedly fought her way out of Ortiz’s pickup truck as he drew his gun on her and alerted a nearby state trooper. Ortiz was arrested a short while later.
The ensuing four years saw Ortiz switch defense teams, delays brought on by the pandemic and a litany of pre-trial motions, including a request for change of trial venue by Ortiz’s attorneys. The motion was granted, moving the trial from Laredo to San Antonio. Last month, prosecutors announced their intention to forgo the death penalty and instead pursue life in prison without parole.
A key part of the trial will focus on whether Ortiz used his position as an intel supervisor with Border Patrol to deflect the murder investigation and stay a step ahead of police.
Immigrant advocates will be watching the case closely to see whether Border Patrol officials could have done anything to prevent the killings, said Pedro Rios, a San Diego-based advocate with the American Friends Service Committee, an advocacy group.
"My concern would be whether (Ortiz) was involved with any type of behavior or took any action that should have raised alarms with colleagues," he said. "And if that took place, whether his colleagues could have stopped this murder spree from happening."
Sandra Rocha Taylor, owner of the PanAmerican Courts Inn & Café on San Bernardo Avenue, said several of the victims lived on her property, and she would see them on occasion. She's also married to a recently retired Border Patrol agent who spent more than three decades with the agency.
Like others in Laredo, she stressed that the actions of a few agents don’t represent the agency as a whole. But the back-to-back-to-back killings involving Border Patrol agents stunned the community, she said. “It caught everyone off guard,” Rocha Taylor said.
She followed the Ortiz case in its early stages, hoping answers would emerge to explain the crimes. The delay in having a trial has been frustrating, she said.
“It’s like someone died and you still can’t bury them,” Rocha Taylor said. “That’s how it feels.”
A community watches
Martinez, the bartender, said she began paying attention to the controversies surrounding Border Patrol after the arrest of Burgos-Aviles because the victim in that case lived a few blocks from her cousin’s house. The Ortiz case stunned her even more.
“Why would he kill them? You’re representing the United States government and you take those women’s lives?” she said. “We have less confidence today (in Border Patrol) than we did before.”
Not everyone agrees.
The vast majority of Border Patrol agents are law-abiding and risk their own lives on a daily basis to combat criminals and keep communities safe, said George Altgelt, a Laredo lawyer who represents Border Patrol agents in civil cases.
The agents he's spoken to don't support suspects like Ortiz or Burgos-Aviles and recoil from excessive violence to vulnerable populations, he said.
The agents work in dangerous conditions, often running into the brush at night to pursue smugglers or rescue stranded migrants, then return home to be law-abiding members of the community, he said.
"In the end, they end up rescuing so many more people than the general public knows about," Altgelt said.
Altgelt said he regularly rides his mountain bike along a wooded trail near the border and is comforted to see the green-uniformed agents patrolling the area.
"A lot of agents are our friends, our next door neighbors," he said. "There is a consensus that we’re glad we have law enforcement out here keeping an eye on things."
Thompson, the TAMIU professor, said he and a friend recently counted the number of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies with a presence in Laredo and came up with 13.
The strong presence of gun-wearing officers in town is generally accepted in Laredo. But when agents harm those they've vowed to protect, it causes resentment not easily reversed, Thompson said.
Distrust of Border Patrol deepened further last year, he said, when horse-mounted agents repelled Haitian families as they waded across the Rio Grande into the United States in nearby Del Rio, Texas, he said. The incident was captured by news photographers and drew widespread condemnation.
"Border patrol has been in deep doo-doo here time and time again," Thompson said.
Ana Sotelo, aunt of Cantu, one of the victims in the Ortiz case, has attended more than a dozen pre-trial hearings over the past four years. She, like other families of victims, said she's been frustrated by how long it's taken to bring the case to court.
A verdict will help her bring closure, she said. But the pain – toward Ortiz and Border Patrol in general – will linger.
"The feelings will still be there," she said, "and will be there for a long time."
Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Murder trial of a Border Patrol agent rekindles questions over agency