Mexican authorities said Wednesday that they plan to seek a diplomatic remedy in Washington to the second incident in less than three years of a Mexican citizen being shot by U.S. agents in a rock-throwing confrontation along the border near Otay Mesa.
"It's an international incident and it has become a diplomatic matter," said Jose L. Cuevas of the Mexican Consulate in San Diego. "Our embassy will take certain steps and present a diplomatic note to the U.S. Department of State."
Cuevas was referring to the Monday night shooting by U.S. Border Patrol agents of a 23-year-old Mexican whose identity authorities refused to disclose.
According to U.S. authorities, the victim was wounded when Border Patrol agents fired across the border to protect themselves and an illegal alien in their custody. The shooting occurred about a mile west of the Otay Mesa border crossing.
Harold Ezell, western regional commissioner for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said the two Border Patrol agents believed a group of Mexicans were firing guns at them because the rock-throwing incident damaged their vehicle heavily and injured the man they had in custody.
'Innocent Guy in Our Custody'
"You ought to see our vehicle," Ezell said. "It looks like a shotgun had blown the window open. And look at the face of this poor guy sitting there. He was an alien that we caught coming across the border. He's an innocent guy in our custody sitting there when this thing goes down and this boulder hits him in the face.
"He yelled out in Spanish, 'I've been hit,' and the window looks like a shotgun blew it out. It's a wonder the guy didn't lose an eye."
However Mike Nicley, a Border Patrol spokesman in San Diego, said it was his understanding that the agents did not think they were being shot at. Instead, he said, the agents fired across the border to protect themselves from the rocks.
"The agents said they were firing in defense of their lives," Nicley said.
With investigations on both sides of the border continuing, Cuevas said the consulate is gathering information to send to the Mexican embassy in Washington.
He said the Mexican government plans to present a diplomatic note to the U.S. State Department expressing its concern about the shooting and its similarity to an incident in 1985 in which a 12-year-old Mexican boy was wounded by Border Patrol gunfire across the border.
A diplomatic note is an official means of communication between governments.
In April, 1985, Humberto Carrillo Estrada, a Tijuana barrio resident, was shot after he allegedly threw rocks at Border Patrol agents who had arrested his older brother.
Edward D. Cole, the agent who fired the shot, was not prosecuted, even though the Mexican government had sought his punishment. Cole was transferred from the San Diego area.
Carrillo filed a $3-million civil lawsuit against the United States. William Odencrantz, western regional counsel for the INS, said the suit resulted in a $574,000 award in August to Carrillo that the government is now considering appealing.
Cuevas said his government is genuinely concerned that the Monday night shooting had many similarities with the Carrillo incident: Both victims were shot after being armed with nothing more than rocks.
Standing on Mexican Soil
In addition, the victim Monday night was in a group of several Mexican men who were clearly standing on Mexican soil when he was wounded, Cuevas said.
"He was on Mexican land and shot upon when he was standing on Mexican territory," Cuevas said.
Asked if the shooting appeared to be a flagrant use of excessive force by the Border Patrol, Cuevas said:
"It appears so. If they (Border Patrol agents) work on the international border line, then they know what the boundary is. So our embassy in Washington is now handling this case." He identified the victim in the shooting only as a 23-year-old man from the Mexican interior who had recently established residence in Tijuana.
Cuevas said the victim is being treated at a Mexican hospital because he cannot afford treatment at a medical facility across the border in San Diego. Cuevas said one U.S. hospital, which he refused to identify, wanted a $25,000 deposit before it would admit the shooting victim.
"That is an exorbitant fee," Cuevas said. "And I don't know why it was so high. It might be because of the nature of the wounds. Anyway, he doesn't have the money."
Both U.S. and Mexico officials refused to release the name of the victim, but did say he was shot once in the abdomen.
However, KGTV Channel 10 identified him Wednesday night as an Ignacio Mendez and reported that he underwent three hours of surgery in Mexico for a bullet lodged in his spine.
The station quoted the victim as saying he briefly entered the United States, then fled from Border Patrol agents, jumped a fence and returned to the Mexican side of the border "when I felt a bullet hit my back."
Nicley and Ezell refused to release the names of the Border Patrol agents involved in the shooting. Nicley said three rounds were fired by the agents, neither of whom were injured by the rocks.
Nicley said the illegal alien inside the Border Patrol vehicle suffered facial cuts and a broken nose. He refused to release the name of the man, who was treated at a San Diego hospital and remains in INS custody under administrative deportation.
The U.S. officials said the agents were not immediately sure Monday night that they had wounded anyone in Mexico. An aerial search of the border area that night failed to turn up any people who may have been injured, officials said.
But Ezell said a woman arrived at the San Ysidro port of entry about 7 a.m. Tuesday. She claimed to be a U.S. citizen and sought U.S. medical treatment for her Mexican husband, whom she said had been shot the night before by the agents.
"That's the first we knew for sure we may have hit anyone," Ezell said.