Border Patrol Agent Who Hit Migrant With Truck Gets Three Years of Probation

Steven Hsieh
Border Patrol arrests a migrant who had jumped over the border fence near Nogales on February 12, 2019.
Matthew Bowen, a Nogales Border Patrol agent accused of intentionally running over a Guatemalan man in 2017 and then lying about it, was sentenced today to three years of probation and a possible $8,000 in restitution fees.

“I want you to remember this," U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Ferraro told Bowen during the federal sentencing hearing in Tucson. "I can’t ignore the seriousness of this offense. Nationally, people are complaining about ICE and Border Patrol and the job that they do. Your conduct reinforces their stereotypes, and makes it much more difficult for your colleagues to preform their duties. It only takes one incident like this to really undermine things."

On December 3, 2017, Bowen hit Antolin Rolando Lopez-Aguilar, a Guatemalan migrant, with his official Border Patrol truck, nearly running him over after Lopez-Aguilar appeared to be trying to cross into the United States illegally, according to court documents.

During the hearing, federal prosecutors said Lopez-Aguilar, who was out of state and had declined to attend, had reported that he thought he was going to die at the time of the attack. Prosecutors also said he has been unable to continue needed physical therapy for injuries to his hands, knees, and back due to lack of money, and regularly wakes up due to the terror and the ongoing pain the incident caused.

Bowen, who's 39, admits he intentionally struck Lopez-Aguilar.

“On the day I was pursuing the victim, I began to realize that I had seconds before he was going to slide off a cliff and most likely get away," Bowen said in court before being read his sentence. "And I made a mistake in judgment by choosing to bump him with my vehicle. I’m thankful he was not seriously injured, and I would like to apologize to the victim sincerely and also to the court.”

Over the course of the trial, it came out that Bowen had referred to immigrants as "subhuman” and “mindless murdering savages” in text messages to other Border Patrol agents. Another sent shortly after the incident read, “guys are being made to think any use of force results in you being investigated and so they are letting tonks get away with too much.” The word “tonk” is a slur for migrants that some say originated from the sound made by an agent's flashlight hitting a migrant's head. Federal prosecutors included Bowen's correspondence in court filings.

His lawyer, Sean Chapman, disputed the characterization of the agent as racist, and said most of these texts were in references to two incidents in which other Border Patrol agents were injured, one of which resulted in an agent's death. The comments, he said, were in reference to drug smugglers who he alleged committed the injuries.

“There have been claims in the media that Mr. Bowen made racist comments about the immigrant community, and it’s simply not true,” Chapman said.

In response to questions from Phoenix New Times about his use of the word "tonk" and other statements made in reference to immigrants in general, Chapman said it was just "gallows humor" commonly used by Border Patrol agents.

Bowen himself, as well as his wife and two other Border Patrol agents in attendance, declined to comment on the sentencing.

"Any time a Border Patrol agent makes a mistake, it reflects poorly on the agency," Chapman said. "But the mistake occurred over the course of a second." Chapman said he's glad his client isn't incarcerated, and that the former agent is looking to enter the trucking business to support his family.

Bowen pleaded guilty to the offense in August and resigned from the agency. Last week, Chapman asked Bowen be given a lighter sentence for the crime, alleging he merely tapped the victim, who wasn’t seriously hurt, according to filings.

But Ferrero didn't accept his proposed six months of probation.

"I’m not going to take the easy way out," Ferrero said to Bowen. "You need to have a sense of consequence — for the next three years, you’re going to have the same sense of stress that you had coming into this today.”

Besides the three years of probation, Bowen's sentence also includes 150 hours of community service, and payment of $8,000 in restitution fees, which will help cover medical and chiropractic expenses for the victim's injuries. Chapman disputed the fine, and the court will discuss it in the coming weeks.

If he violates his probation terms, Bowen would have to serve a year in prison.