The Washington Post
October 3, 1998
Violence, Questions Grow in U.S. Crackdown on Border Crossers

                  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 in
                  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 Saturday
                  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
                  shot him.

                  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
                  County investigate.

                  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 of
                  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
                  attempting passage.

                  Apprehensions of illegal immigrants in the Border Patrol's division here are
                  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.

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