WHY, Ariz.—Yvonne Nevarez remembers her late uncle Raymond Mattia as a proud Tohono O'odham Nation member who always took a stand against injustice.
He was a kind, respectful, peace-loving man, she said, making his shooting death by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents even harder to accept.
"I'm angry. I can't believe it. I don't want to believe it. Our lives will never be the same," Nevarez said, struggling through tears.
"He was like a dad to me. And now, he's gone."
Family members said that on May 18, Mattia contacted tribal police to report illegal migrants trespassing on his property in Meneger's Dam Village, a remote southern border community of the Tohono O'odham Nation reservation about 52 miles from Ajo by car.
During a brief encounter with CBP agents, family members said Mattia was shot approximately 38 times for reasons as yet unknown.
"It was literally at his doorstep," Nevarez told The Epoch Times at a protest gathering near the Ajo Border Patrol Station in Why, Arizona, on May 27.
Tribal members and supporters held another demonstration in Tucson on the same day.
"We feel that how they took his life was unjust. There's no justification for it," Nevarez said.
The family released a statement calling the shooting a "grievous" incident.
"Raymond called for help and, in turn, was shot down on his doorstep. Raymond's rights were violated by the authorities whom we trust to protect our Nation. Improper and unprofessional actions of the agencies involved were witnessed by family members present near the crime scene.
"Loved ones sat in agony, not knowing of Raymond's condition until they were told that he had passed away hours later. Raymond lay in front of his home for seven hours before a coroner from Tucson arrived.
"In our eyes and hearts, we believe Raymond was approached with excessive and deadly force that took his life. He was a father, brother, uncle, friend, and an involved community member. Raymond always fought for what was right, and he will continue to fight even after his death. This is not an isolated incident, but it should bring awareness of the oppression our people live through."
The family has started a GoFundMe page to raise $10,000 in legal defense fees.
CBP RespondsOn May 22, CBP issued a statement detailing the events leading to Mattia's death.
According to the statement, at 9:04 p.m., the U.S. Border Patrol Tuscon Sector Tactical Operations Center notified the Ajo station that the Tohono O'odham Nation Police Department had requested assistance responding to a report of shots fired near Mattia's property.
At least 10 CBP agents met with tribal police at the local recreation center to coordinate a joint response.
At 9:32 p.m., a tribal police officer and several CBP agents arrived near Mattia's residence and "spread out while searching for the man."
"The officer and agents encountered an individual approximately 103 meters (about 337 feet) northwest of their parked vehicles, outside a residence, at approximately 9:03 p.m."
At that point, Mattia allegedly "threw an object" at the police officer as they approached.
The object landed "a few feet" from the officer.
"Shortly after the individual threw the object, he abruptly extended his right arm away from his body, and three agents fired their service weapons, striking the individual several times," the statement reads.
"The individual fell to the ground, and the officer and agents slowly approached the man."
The statement made no mention of whether Mattia was armed or whether warnings were given before he was shot down.
Resuscitation Efforts FailAgents began administering CPR after they couldn't detect a pulse and requested emergency medical services.
However, because of bad weather, there was no air life evacuation available. The agents continued administering CPR without success.
Mattia was pronounced dead at a Pima County hospital at 10:06 p.m. The medical examiner's office took custody of the body pending an autopsy on May 19, the statement added.
The agents involved in the shooting will remain on administrative leave according to standard practice while authorities investigate the "use of deadly force."
"All three agents who discharged their weapons and seven additional agents activated their body-worn cameras during the incident."
The statement added that the CBP is "committed to the expeditious release of the body-worn camera footage of this incident as soon as is appropriate to do so without impacting the ongoing law enforcement investigation."
The Tohono O'odham Police Department and FBI are currently investigating. CBP stated that the agency's National Use of Force Review Board would review the incident following the investigation.
Tohono O'odham police referred the matter to the department's public information officer Matt Smith, who didn't return a phone call or text requesting comment from The Epoch Times.
At the May 27 protest in Why, family spokeswoman Ofelia Rivas said tribal members have reported many negative encounters with an "aggressive" Border Patrol in the past.
"This has been going on for quite a while," Rivas told The Epoch Times. "The Border Patrol claims to have supreme authority on the reservation."
On her blog site, Bren Norrell, a journalist with Censored News, wrote that Mattia had voiced concerns about alleged Border Patrol collusion with Mexican drug cartels during an interview about a decade ago.
"Raymond told me that he had evidence that U.S. Border Patrol agents in the area were working with the cartels and were involved in drug running," Norrell wrote.
"Mattia had video evidence that disappeared after he made an official report."
Rivas corroborated Norrell's statement anecdotally, saying tribal community members reported observing many interactions between Border Patrol agents and cartel members on Tohono O'odham land.
"Border Patrol would escort the cartel vehicles through the village to wherever they were going through the reservation. Everybody witnessed that. Everybody in the community witnessed that," she said.
Untold StoryRivas said she believes "absolutely" that much about Mattia's fatal encounter with Border Patrol has yet to be explained.
Like his family, she's awaiting the investigation results, including the body camera footage.
"He's been a victim for everything he tried to advocate for the community because he is a ceremony person. There's retaliation—absolute retaliation from the Border Patrol, especially in the border area where you don't have any help."
Michelle, a Tohono O'odham Nation member who works in Ajo, spoke of strained relations between the Tohono O'odham Nation and Border Patrol.
"There's a lot of stuff that happens out there that's fishy with Border Patrol," Michelle told The Epoch Times.
"I'm angered and saddened by [Mattia's death]. I mean, come on—38 shots at one person?"
"From what I've seen with the Border Patrol, they're strict with our tribal members. Excuse my language; they're kind of [expletives] with us. Some of them are OK. They treat us with respect. Others, they don't."
Michelle said that trespassing by illegal migrants on tribal land happens "all the time" and often goes unchallenged.
"They have illegals coming into yards, trying to steal vehicles. They come and knock on doors asking for water, or they'll open the door and help themselves in."
Michelle told The Epoch Times she knows some tribal members who receive money from the cartels helping usher illegals across the reservation.
"It is a big problem," she said. "I would say tribal members—the young kids—get into it. They get paid [by drug cartels] to cross them over. They get pulled into that. They see the money—fast money. Even the older people are getting into it.
"The cartels pay money. Some of them get pulled deep into it. If they make a mistake ... not good."
Michelle said she couldn't see why Border Patrol agents had to shoot Mattia 38 times to subdue him.
'Frustrating and Sad'"It's just like anything else in the world with police officers pulling their guns," said Wanda, a restaurant server in Ajo. "Out of the seven [agents], not one of them saw he did not have anything in his hand? It's frustrating—and it's sad."
Another tribal member, who didn't want to be identified, said: "Do we have a lot of that stuff happening here? No. Am I nervous about it? No. Everybody in Ajo knows the residents and the people who come and visit. It's almost like we watch out for each other.
"It's upsetting. How much is a rock going to do? They're supposed to de-escalate situations, not escalate them."
According to CBP data, there have been two fatal shootings and a total of 157 use-of-force incidents in the Tucson Sector in fiscal 2023 to date.
In fiscal 2022, there were three use-of-force incidents involving firearms and 196 total incidents.
Ariella Walker, a humanitarian advocate from Why, said her reason for attending the May 27 protest was to show her support for the Mattias family.
"It's just the [CBP] response we're focusing on," said Walker, who said that she believes that CBP agents are "trained to dehumanize."
"I don't think the [body camera] footage needs to be released for people to be outraged. Just the fact that it happened is enough," Walker told The Epoch Times.
"We know we've seen cases with Border Patrol who have colluded with cartel members assisting in drug running."
Walker said she fears the shooting incident will disappear in the news cycle.
"We've already seen the pattern where something atrocious happens, there's an outrage. The family is hurt. The country sparks up in arms. Eventually, it's co-opted and dies slowly in the political system."
"Hurt. Disgusted," is how Tina described her reaction to her first cousin Ray Mattia's death. "He was just an all-around great guy. He was a peaceful person," Tina said.
"I believe a story is out there—I don't know what it is. The truth is out there."
Nevarez said her uncle's death has all the outward appearances of an "execution."
"I feel like it could have turned out differently, but because it was Border Patrol ... none of it makes any sense," she said.