Thursday, September 24, 2009

Agents who shot at speeding van felt threatened, officials say (San Diego Union-Tribune)

Agents who shot at speeding van felt threatened, officials say
By Leslie Berestein
Union-Tribune Staff Writer

8:23 p.m. September 23, 2009

SAN YSIDRO — The daring daytime smuggling attempt that incited three federal agents to start shooting, shutting down the San Ysidro border crossing Tuesday afternoon, was brazen but not unheard of.

Human and drug smugglers have long attempted the dangerous practice of running the ports of entry, sometimes premeditated, others in a fit of panic after they arouse suspicion.

The protocol is for officers to fire their weapons if they feel their lives are in danger, said Harold Washington, president of the union representing U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers in San Diego.

“It is a lifesaving function,” Washington said. “You do that when your life is in danger, you have been threatened.”

San Diego police, who are investigating the shooting, said agents fired when one of the smugglers drove a van toward them.

“They feared for their safety,” Lt. Kevin Rooney said.

Last month at San Ysidro, a van loaded with 42 people ran the border into the United States through the southbound lanes in the early-morning hours, said Angelica De Cima, a spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The vehicle was spotted on Interstate 905 and eventually pulled over after the Border Patrol and California Highway Patrol responded, De Cima said.

The San Ysidro port of entry is equipped with tire shredders and other vehicle-stopping devices, intended to stop anyone who barges through.

And while the likelihood is they won't make it, some do. In late 2006, a van loaded with drugs that got through at San Ysidro was later found abandoned.

Shots have also been fired at the port of entry, sometimes fatally. In May 2006, one driver was shot and killed as he tried to drive a vehicle loaded with illegal immigrants back into Mexico.

Preliminary reports indicate that on Tuesday, the shots were fired by two Customs and Border Protection officers and one U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent.

Four people were injured, two by gunfire, including an innocent border crosser.

Those critical of the incident pointed out the danger to nearby motorists waiting in line.

“The results of such a violent reaction from federal agents could have been a lot worse,” said Adriana Jasso of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker-affiliated human rights group that has issued a statement condemning the shooting.

The incident occurred about 3:30 p.m., when commuters and students who live in Tijuana are starting to head back south, Jasso said.

In a border-running scenario, “if you do not have time to escape, you have to defend yourself,” said Washington, of the National Treasury Employees Union Local 105.

He said the idea is “to stop them right there, to prevent them from doing any harm to innocent bystanders or other officers. They can do all kinds of damage.”

This could be anything from a dangerous traffic chase to an act of terrorism, he said. Some who try to evade port authorities have turned violent, including a 74-year-old man in the late 1990s who opened fire on customs officers in Calexico while trying to smuggle marijuana. Two officers were wounded before the man was shot dead.

Tuesday's shootings occurred after a customs agent stepped into his booth to check the license of the first van. All three drivers stormed the border together and tried to find open lanes that would lead to Interstate 5 or Interstate 805, police Lt. Rooney said.

The vans ended up stuck in traffic and two of them backed up to find other avenues of escape. The three federal officers opened fire when the driver of one of the vans drove toward them, Rooney said.

Two people were hit by gunfire, including a 31-year-old man who was driving the van and a 42-year-old male passenger.

The driver of that van continued to a lane on the west side of the port, where he crashed into a pickup, injuring a 30-year-old passenger in the truck.

Another passenger in the van, a 37-year-old man, suffered a head injury and cuts as a result of the crash, police said.

Two people were arrested in connection with the smuggling attempt, a U.S. citizen and a Mexican citizen. A third man, now in the hospital, will be arrested Thursday, said Lauren Mack, an ICE spokeswoman.

A total of 79 people were taken into custody; some passengers will be held as material witnesses, Mack said.

The driver of one of the vans, arrested by Mexican authorities after the van was observed returning to Mexico, was a minor, and a Mexican citizen, De Cima said.

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