SAN DIEGO — A Mexican man died Sunday night and his two companions were seriously injured after they ran from Border Patrol agents and fell 50 feet off a cliff in the darkness near San Onofre State Beach.
Hugo Cisneros Ramirez, 20, became the fifth person this year to die near the checkpoint south of San Clemente.
His death raised the ire of migrant advocates who accused the Border Patrol of using reckless tactics in apprehending illegal immigrants.
But the Border Patrol blamed a smuggler who dropped the men off and instructed them to run across the freeway into dark, hilly terrain to circumvent the immigration checkpoint near San Onofre.
The smuggling suspect, 42-year-old Sebastian Eustacio Juarez Santander of Los Angeles, was arrested and might face additional charges because of the death and injuries, Border Patrol spokesman Steve Kean said.
"We have to drive the point home to these smugglers that they have to act responsibly, even if the activity they are engaged in is illegal," Kean said. "They have to understand that these people are at their mercy."
Juarez had dropped off Cisneros and four other illegal immigrants on the side of northbound Interstate 5, about half a mile south of the checkpoint, Kean said. Following a practice commonly used by smugglers, Kean said, the immigrants were supposed to cross the freeway to the west side, walk north past the Border Patrol checkpoint, then recross to the east side. The smuggler would drive through the checkpoint and pick them up on the other side, Kean said.
Agents at the checkpoint saw the men running across the freeway half a mile to the south, Kean said, and were told by another driver that they had been dropped off from Juarez's pickup truck.
Juarez was detained and two agents were dispatched to intercept the group, but when Cisneros and the others spotted the Border Patrol vehicle's headlights, they split up, two heading into the brush and the others running west toward the beach.
An agent using night vision goggles spotted the pair in the brush and guided other patrol agents to their hiding place, Kean said.
After arresting them, the patrol agents went to find Cisneros and the other two who fled west, he said.
"They ran off the cliffside while our agents were apprehending the people in the brush," Kean said. "Our agents did not pursue these people off the cliff. Our agents are very aware of the inherent dangers to these people getting smuggled, and that's why they went for the people that hid in the brush."
The agents found the three men at the bottom of a 50-foot cliff at the beach, all of them severely injured, Kean said. The cliff is about 150 yards west of the spot where the arrests were made, he said.
Cisneros died at the scene at 10:16 p.m., half an hour after the fall, said Brenda Cummings, an investigator for the San Diego County medical examiner.
Guadalupe Diaz, 17, and Jose Deharo, 32, were airlifted to Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla from the beach, part of Camp Pendleton that is leased to the state.
Diaz suffered a broken left leg and chest wounds and was placed in the intensive care unit, and Deharo broke his left leg and suffered cuts to his scalp, said Elie High, a hospital spokeswoman.
Kean said the agents did not hear any screams and they did not know what had happened until they found the men at the foot of the cliff.
But immigrant advocates criticized the Border Patrol agents for pursuing the men in what was a potentially dangerous area.
"These agents know that that cliff is there, they work the area, so there is no excuse for them to chase them into there. If they use this cliff to try to trap these guys, then they have to be held accountable for what happens," said Roberto Martinez of the American Friends Service Committee.
"This just shows the desperation of these workers when they come to the U.S.," he said.
Times staff writer Sebastian Rotella contributed to this report.