Union Tribune

June 27, 2002

Mexican army is blamed for assault
Six migrants were hurt during border shooting


and Leonel Sanchez 

MEXICALI – An official state human rights agency here yesterday
blamed the Mexican army for a June 14 assault that wounded at least six undocumented immigrants just yards from the U.S. border and heightened concerns about the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico

Raul Ramírez Baena, director of the Baja California Human Rights
office, called on the army, which is notorious for its reluctance to
provide information to the public, to acknowledge its responsibility in the attack.

Ramírez said a full army account is "morally required."

"Now there is an information vacuum," he said, "and this just leads to speculation."

The report based its conclusions, in part, on interviews with some of the 23 immigrants involved in the incident, which occurred shortly
after midnight in a barren stretch of desert about four miles from
Imperial Valley farmlands in the United States.

The immigrants, who were traveling in a Chevrolet Suburban, said the shots were fired from an all-terrain Hummer carrying about six armed men in uniforms. Investigators found tire tracks consistent with that type of military vehicle.

The written report refuted previous accounts in some Mexican
newspapers that quoted unnamed government sources saying that the soldiers opened fire only after shots were fired from the Suburban. 

The human rights office said it had established that no one in the
Suburban "was carrying any instrument that could have been used to provoke an attack."

Ramírez called on Mexican federal authorities to stop using the army to patrol the border.

The army's presence on roads and highways near the border, as well as in remote areas used to smuggle both migrants and drugs, has
intensified in recent years as the federal government increasingly has regarded drug traffickers as a threat to national security.

"Members of the military do not have the necessary training" to
conduct such operations, Ramírez said, adding that such duties are not consistent with the army's constitutionally mandated role of
protecting Mexico from foreign threats.

Yesterday's report provides the most detailed account yet of the
attack on the Suburban, which carried 18 Salvadorans, four Mexicans
and one Ecuadoran. Ramírez said the report drew on interviews with
U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials as well as with many of the immigrants.

The four Mexicans – three women and a six-year-old girl – refused to talk, apparently out of fear of reprisals from the army or the two
smugglers, who fled on foot when the Suburban foundered in the sand about 50 yards north of the border.

According to the report, the Suburban was heading toward the border, headlights out, when it encountered a southbound military Hummer, which was also traveling without lights.

After stopping momentarily next to the Hummer, the Suburban's
driver sped toward the border, saying twice that "the Mexican
government" was coming.

When it was 30 to 40 yards from the dirt road that marks the
international boundary, the shooting began.

The injured Salvadorans were taken to hospitals in El Centro and San Diego, some by helicopter and others by ambulance. Three were seriously injured and one remains hospitalized in San Diego.

Sheriff's Sgt. Manuel Garcia of Imperial County, who is heading a U.S. investigation, said the military could have been involved in the
shooting – but it also could have been the work of smugglers.

Garcia said a couple of witnesses told his investigators they saw a
white jeep that looked like a Mexican military vehicle after the
shooting erupted. None said they saw anyone wearing a military
uniform, he said.

Garcia said he has shared his preliminary findings with the Baja
California state attorney general's office and will have an official report later this week.

He said his office did not seek to speak to the Mexican military directly because "that's not part of our protocol. Our investigation ends at the border."

Efforts to reach the Mexican army to comment on yesterday's report
were unsuccessful.