Union Tribune

June 15, 2002 

Gunfire wounds 8 border crossers

By Gregory Alan Gross 


EL CENTRO – A Chevrolet Suburban with at least 23 illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central and South America was hit by gunfire near the U.S.-Mexico border yesterday, leaving eight wounded.

The shooting may have been the work of a Mexican army patrol.

"There are preliminary reports that this vehicle challenged the
military in Mexico," said Miguel Monterrubio, a spokesman for the
Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C. " . . . Mexican authorities in the area are doing an investigation to find out what happened."

The Suburban, which had tinted windows and California license plates, was hit several times. One official said .308-caliber shell casings were found in the area.

The immigrants included seven women and a child believed to be 2 or 3 years old. All of those shot were men, and two of the more seriously wounded were airlifted to San Diego hospitals. The others were taken to hospitals in Imperial County with relatively minor injuries.

According to Border Patrol spokesman Manuel Figueroa, the incident
occurred about 12:30 a.m. yesterday when Border Patrol agents
spotted multiple sets of headlights heading north across the dark Yuha Desert, about 20 miles west of the border town of Calexico. They found the Suburban about 75 yards north of the border.

Border Patrol agents found 23 people with the Suburban. Seventeen
were from El Salvador and one was from Ecuador, with the remaining five from Mexico.

"There were others who managed to run back across the border into
Mexico," Figueroa said. "We're not sure exactly how many."

The border is unmarked at that point, and Figueroa said that
"smugglers load up with aliens and drugs and try to make it north."

"You're talking about 25 miles of open desert. There's no fence; there's nothing out there," he said. "It's a common drive-through area."

Sgt. Manuel Garcia of the Imperial County Sheriff's Department said
the shooting occurred in Mexico, just west of Mexicali. The arid area is surrounded by mountains, and daytime temperatures yesterday
hovered in the triple digits.

The immigrants told sheriff's investigators they saw a vehicle
approaching, possibly with its lights turned off, and heard shots after it passed them. Deputies believe there was more than one gunman.

"We don't know why it happened," Garcia said. "It could have been a set-up."

None of the witnesses got a look at the gunmen, he said.

Mexican newspaper reports out of Mexicali said an army patrol had
fired in self-defense at two migrant smuggling vehicles in the area
where the Suburban was found.

According to those reports, the army intercepted two vehicles,
believed to be carrying illegal immigrants, after they were chased back into Mexico by the Border Patrol. When the army patrol ordered them to stop, the occupants of one of the cars fired at the soldiers, who returned fire, the reports said.

No independent confirmation of this account was available yesterday from the Mexican army. The army rarely comments on shootings involving soldiers.

The army still hasn't fully explained a January incident at the Otay
Mesa border crossing, when a soldier sprayed bullets into a line of cars waiting to cross into the United States. Three people were injured in that incident.

Yesterday's shooting comes as Border Patrol agents and Washington politicians are becoming alarmed over increasing reports of incursions into U.S. territory by Mexican soldiers and federal agents.

Since the late 1990s, Mexican infantry and cavalry units have taken a larger role in patrolling the border for drug traffickers and migrant

It was unclear whether the gunmen's vehicle was in the United States or Mexico when the shots were fired.

Mexican incursions into the United States have been occurring for
years along the border, which in several areas is either poorly marked or not marked at all. The units, which often operate at night, are armed with assault rifles, submachine guns and even grenade launchers.

In the El Centro area, there have been reports of at least a half-dozen encounters since May 21 between Mexican troops and Border Patrol agents on the U.S. side of the border.

"The situation is getting critical," Keith Week, a spokesman for Local 1613 of the Border Patrol union, said yesterday. "Eventually, we're going to get an agent killed out there."

On the other side of the border, Mexican human-rights advocates also voiced concern.

"It is worrisome that the army is being used to patrol the border since this is not their job," said Raul Ramírez, who heads the Baja California Human Rights office. "Doing so creates an atmosphere which can lead to human rights abuses."

Greg Gross: (619) 498-6632; greg.gross@uniontrib.com

Staff writers Leonel Sanchez and Anna Cearley contributed to this report.