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There's been a big development in the mysterious death of a Border Patrol agent last November. He died after being found near a remote highway in West Texas. President Trump and border wall supporters speculated it was a brutal murder by smugglers. The FBI now says after an exhaustive investigation, that they have found no evidence the officer's death was a homicide. NPR's John Burnett reports.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: On the moonless night of November 18, the bleeding, battered body of Rogelio Martinez was found at the base of a culvert below Interstate 10. It was near the town of Van Horn about 130 miles east of El Paso and 30 miles across the rugged desert from the Mexican border. But was it a crime scene or an accident site? He and Agent Stephen Garland had been inspecting a drainage area for illegal activity when the incident happened.
Martinez's death fit the narrative the president and border hawks were advancing. The borderlands are lawless and must be tamed. Suspicions immediately fell on smugglers or unauthorized immigrants. Speculation was they wielded rocks to brutally beat the pair. The Border Patrol closed ranks around this scenario.
VICTOR MANJARREZ: That area, Van Horn - you know, those culverts - they're pretty well-known for marijuana smugglers in particular.
BURNETT: That's Victor Manjarrez. He retired from the Border Patrol after 23 years, including two stints as chief agent in the Southwest. He's now with The Center for Law & Human Behavior at the University of Texas at El Paso. But late Wednesday, the FBI in El Paso said after 650 interviews involving 37 field offices, investigators could find no evidence supporting, quote, "the existence of a scuffle, altercation or attack" involving the agents.
An autopsy found that Martinez died of severe head trauma, but the FBI said there were no defensive wounds on Martinez or his partner and no third-party blood or DNA evidence recovered from their clothing. Garland is still recovering from injuries to his back and skull. He cannot remember what happened that night. A radio dispatcher recalled a disoriented and wounded Garland telling her, we ran into a culvert, but he didn't say what happened in the culvert. The FBI investigation remains open and inconclusive, and Manjarrez says the case may take longer to crack.
MANJARREZ: My 23 years' experience on the Border Patrol tells me there's always evidence. You just haven't found it.
BURNETT: Victor Manjarrez and many active agents remain convinced it was foul play.
MANJARREZ: My hunch still tells me that's - it's an assault.
BURNETT: There have been other theories. A nearby county sheriff who was one of the first responders has speculated the agents may have been sideswiped by an 18-wheeler speeding along the interstate. But the day after the agent's death, President Trump tweeted, we will seek out and bring to justice those responsible. We will and must build the wall. And the smuggler ambush story carried the day. The FBI put up a reward for $50,000 for resolution of the case and posted the dead agent's photo on billboards from Texas to Southern California. Texas Senator Ted Cruz tweeted that the death was a stark reminder of the ongoing threat that an unsecure border poses.
A homicide was credible because assaults on border agents jumped nearly 50 percent to 847 assaults last year, a reflection of increased tensions along the international divide. Carry Huffman is chief of strategic planning at the Border Patrol.
BENJAMIN HUFFMAN: You know, that's an alarming trend that we see. The border has been and remains a dangerous place.
BURNETT: The FBI says the case of Agent Martinez remains a top priority, and it will continue to pursue all logical leads and investigative avenues. John Burnett, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.