Police: Agents felt trapped in border shooting

September 23, 2009 6:35:37 PM PDT
Federal agents felt trapped when they opened fire on the driver of one of two vans packed with suspected illegal immigrants that barreled toward them at the nation's busiest border crossing, an official said Wednesday. The agents "were out on foot, they didn't have an area of safety they felt they could go to, and the drivers were going right at them," said San Diego police Lt. Kevin Rooney.

Four people were injured after drivers of three vans stormed past an inspector Tuesday at the San Ysidro border crossing connecting San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico. None of the injuries was life-threatening.

The drivers were trying to escape onto nearby Interstate 5. But the vans got stuck behind cars in an area that funnels vehicles through a few lanes to the freeway.

Authorities also activated a system of tire shredders and steel planks that shoot up from the ground at the freeway entrance.

Drivers of two of the vans backed up and drove toward another freeway entrance, heading for the agents who drew their guns and yelled for the drivers to stop, Rooney said.

The agents felt that if they jumped out of the way, they might dodge the first van but not the second, he said. Others in the area may also have been in harm's way, Rooney added.

The shooting sparked criticism from some immigrant activists because the officials -- two from Customs and Border Protection and one from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- fired in thick afternoon traffic. The American Friends Service Committee said the use of force was excessive.

Rooney said no evidence suggests anyone in the vans was armed.

Officials at CBP and ICE declined to comment on whether the shooting was justified. A CBP statement said only that one driver "posed a threat and attempted to flee."

Mexico's Foreign Relations Department said in a statement that it was concerned about the incident and was trying to assist the Mexican passengers.

Police said the driver and a passenger in one van were shot. Another passenger suffered head injuries and cuts when the van hit a truck, where another man was hurt.

Two drivers were arrested and prosecutors were reviewing the case for possible smuggling charges. Another driver ran back to Mexico, where he was captured and will be prosecuted, according to CBP.

The agency said 78 suspected illegal immigrants from Mexico were traveling in the three vans and were taken into custody. All seats except the driver's had been ripped out of the vans. One of the vehicles had been stolen near SeaWorld San Diego last month, Rooney said.

"They had to have been packed in there beyond belief," said Mike Unzueta, special agent in charge of investigations for ICE in San Diego.

Authorities closed all 24 U.S-bound vehicle lanes for hours after the incident, causing major delays.

A union official said a key question for San Diego police investigating the shooting is whether the agents could have escaped as the vans headed toward them.

"A vehicle is a deadly weapon if it's coming at you," said Harold Washington, president of National Treasury Employees Union Local 105, which represents border inspectors in San Diego. "If you do not have time to escape, you have to defend yourself."

In the 1990s, it was common for drivers, known as "port runners," to speed past inspectors to Interstate 5.

Then the government erected rails that required motorists to navigate a serpentine path, Washington said. They were later removed because they clogged traffic and motorists inadvertently struck the barricades.

The port runner alert system of tire shredders and steel planks has almost halted the practice.

"There's no way they possibly could have gotten out of there if the alert system was activated," Washington said.

More recently authorities have contended with "port runners" who try to enter the United States by driving the wrong way into Mexico-bound traffic. There are fewer barriers in those southbound lanes.

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