By Rene Sanchez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 3, 1998; Page A03
CHULA VISTA, Calif.—In the rough and desolate foothills that straddle
the Mexican border near here, where desperate cat-and-mouse chases
between illegal immigrants and federal agents never end, it has been an
uncommonly bloody week.
In four separate confrontations, U.S. Border Patrol agents have opened
fire on migrants who had allegedly pelted them with stones or rushed
toward them in cars after being caught attempting to sneak into the
country. Two of the Mexicans were fatally shot and a third was seriously
The outbreak of violence, the most serious along the California border
years, is prompting new questions about the training of border agents and
the tactics at the heart of Operation Gatekeeper, a massive federal
crackdown against illegal immigration here.
Mexican authorities and some human rights groups here have expressed
alarm over the rash of shootings and have demanded an extensive
investigation. Federal officials, meanwhile, are adamantly defending their
policies and say that preliminary findings suggest that in each case the use
of deadly force was justified.
There are now more than 2,200 agents -- more than double the number
earlier this decade -- guarding the 66 miles of the border stretching from
the Pacific Ocean into the California desert, a region that has long been
one of the busiest points of illegal entry into the United States. The
tremendous rise in manpower and the array of sophisticated new tools that
agents are using -- such as stadium lighting, infrared scopes and motion
sensors buried in trails -- have made illegal border crossings far more
difficult than they once were.
It is also making the daily showdowns between well-armed Border Patrol
agents and migrants ever more dangerous and tense. Earlier this year in
Arizona, an agent was shot and killed by drug smugglers illegally crossing
the border. At times, snipers on Mexican hilltops have fired on agents in
"We've never had this many serious incidents at once in a long time," said
Harold Beasley, the deputy chief of the Border Patrol division here. "The
threats our agents are getting are from frustration with how tight the border
is becoming. These incidents are of great concern. We want to save lives,
not take them."
But others contend that blame for the violence may lie mostly with the
Border Patrol. "They are getting a lot more aggressive out there with
people," said Roberto Martinez, director of the American Friends Service
Committee, a nonprofit group whose San Diego office monitors abuses by
border agents. "Their shooting policies need desperately to be reviewed."
Details of the two killings are still sketchy. The first occurred last
night, on a narrow dirt path on the U.S. side of a 10-foot-high metal fence
that lines the border for miles. According to Border Patrol officials, an
agent confronted three men who had just climbed the fence from Tijuana.
As the agent struggled in the darkness to detain one of the migrants,
officials said, one of the others allegedly hurled a rock at him from a few
yards away, then moved closer with another rock in his hand. Authorities
said the agent ordered the man to stop and drop the rock, but he didn't.
The agent drew his weapon and fired.
The man died on the scene. One of the other migrants was apprehended,
and the third fled back over the fence.
Before the second killing, which occurred a day later and several miles
west of here, an agent who was checking for footprints was suddenly
struck by a shower of rocks, border officials said. As he retreated to his
vehicle, they said, he spotted a man approaching him with a rock and
ordered him to stop. When he didn't, Border Patrol officials said, the agent
Officials said the other two shooting incidents were sparked by drivers
apparently trying to run over agents near vehicle checkpoints. One migrant
was shot in the chest by an agent who fired into an approaching car, but no
one was killed. The Border Patrol agents involved have been placed on
paid leave while federal and sheriff's department officials in San Diego
Mexican authorities, who have been working closely with the Border
Patrol here on several new campaigns to warn migrants of the many
dangers of illegal crossing, are now calling for a review of Operation
Gatekeeper's policies and are questioning whether the shootings were
justified. Other human rights activists say that opening fire on illegal
immigrants armed only with rocks is extreme.
"In the past, Border Patrol agents were able to handle the situations and
use weapons as a last resort," said Carlos Felix Corona, Mexico's deputy
consul general in San Diego.
Border Patrol officials contend that rock-throwing is one of the most
serious threats agents face. In the last year, they have logged more than
200 incidents in which agents were pelted by rocks, often as large as
softballs. Officials say lobbing rocks over the fence can be merely a tactic
to divert the attention of agents, but some agents have been badly injured
by rocks aimed right at them.
"We're dealing all the time with huge rocks, thrown with the intention
hurting us," border agent Caesar Zambrano said one afternoon this week,
as he stood watch in a truck parked on a windy, barren bluff overlooking
the slums of Tijuana and the border fence. "You hear it on our radios at
least three or four times every day out here: 'More rocks.' It's dangerous."
But critics charge that the Border Patrol is using the onslaught of
rock-throwing as cover for the problems it has had recruiting, training and
keeping enough qualified agents to fill the ambitious expansion of the force
that Operation Gatekeeper has required.
Launched four years ago, Gatekeeper has by most accounts succeeded in
making illegal entry into the United States along the California border much
more difficult, especially in well-guarded city crossing points that once
were overrun by migrants. Now, many illegal immigrants -- and the
smugglers to whom they pay sometimes thousands of dollars for illegal
passage -- have little choice but to try to sneak into the country through the
mountains or desert farther east of San Diego. Those routes are so
treacherous -- more than 70 crossers have died there this year, and border
agents have rescued more than 100 others -- that fewer are apparently
Apprehensions of illegal immigrants in the Border Patrol's division here
the lowest they have been in 18 years, down from nearly 700,000 a year in
the mid-1980s to about 250,000 now.
The border is heavily guarded around the clock by armed agents stationed
in all-terrain trucks not more than 100 yards or so apart from each other.
The division can even scatter a second line of agents in trucks in the ravines
that lie just beyond the steep hills along the border, in case illegal
immigrants elude the first line of defense.
Federal officials say they have not compromised standards, or relaxed
Border Patrol policies regarding the use of force, as part of the hiring surge
and the growing crackdown. Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for the
Immigration and Naturalization Service's western regional office, which
oversees the Border Patrol, said that all agents must pass a rigorous
screening process that includes an 18-week academy and extensive
training in firearms. For every 500 applicants who take the initial
competency test, she said, only about three dozen get hired.
"We don't want to downplay these shooting incidents, because we're very
concerned about them and are investigating what happened," Kice said.
"But I think we've had a pretty good record in the last few years."
Still, more than 20 percent of agents quit every year, and some union
officials in the Border Patrol have complained publicly that the constant
pressure to fill jobs is lowering standards.
"There is no way that the Border Patrol could double in size over the last
couple of years, rushing 1,000 new agents a year to the border, and ensure
that these recruits were well-trained and well-supervised," said Martinez,
of the American Friends Service Committee.
What is clear to both sides, however, is that the mood along the border
has changed. The days are over when crossers offered little resistance
when caught, and Border Patrol agents simply shipped them back home
without even detaining them.
"They have their plans with their rocks, and we have our plan to stop them
when they cross," Zambrano said, as he kept close watch on the border
fence. "It's just like a chess match every day here. We're trying to be very
cautious, but we're dealing with a lot of tensions now."
Special correspondent Cassandra Stern contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company