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10 Armed Men Entered U.S. From Mexico, Agents Say

Security: Border Patrol team reports hearing shots in a rural area and seeing uniformed intruders, who then retreated.

October 26, 2000|KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — U.S. and Mexican authorities Wednesday were investigating a report by Border Patrol agents that 10 uniformed men bearing rifles crossed onto U.S. soil in a canyon east of San Diego before encountering the agents and returning to Mexico.

Border Patrol officials said the agents heard shots during the incident, which occurred Tuesday about four miles east of the Otay Mesa border crossing. The case is reminiscent of other border crossings in recent years that have caused friction between the two nations.

The Border Patrol agents took cover and radioed for help "to ensure their safe extraction from the area," the agency said in a statement.

"They were outgunned and outnumbered and heard gunshots. So they took cover and waited it out," said agent Merv Mason, a Border Patrol spokesman in San Diego.

The intruders, described as wearing uniforms, came within 20 yards of the U.S. officers, who announced themselves repeatedly as Border Patrol agents, Mason said. He said the other men did not identify themselves before turning and walking back to Mexico. Mason said the U.S. agents were unable to identify any distinguishing uniform markings.

A Border Patrol helicopter was sent to retrieve the U.S. agents. No one was injured.

Mason said U.S. officials were conferring with Mexican authorities to determine who the men were and why they crossed. They reportedly entered near Otay Mountain in a rural zone where the border is marked by a knee-high fence meant to bar vehicles from entering the United States illegally.

Roberto Gonzalez, a spokesman for the Mexican Consulate in San Diego, said a preliminary investigation indicated that no shots had been fired.

"There has been confusion. There were no shots," he said.

Gonzalez said the rugged terrain in that area makes it hard to determine where the border lies. But he said the question of whether any group entered U.S terrain was still being investigated by both nations.

Although it remained unclear who the men were, the incident recalls cases in which Mexican soldiers and agents have strayed into U.S. territory, mainly along sections where official border markers are sparse.

The best-known incursion occurred in New Mexico in March, when Mexican soldiers on an anti-drug patrol crashed through a border fence and fired shots at Border Patrol agents west of El Paso. No one was hurt. The next month, U.S. and Mexican police drew weapons on each other in a flood control channel between Nogales, Mexico, and Nogales, Ariz. Mexican officials said the agents accidentally entered U.S. territory while patrolling for drugs.

"This isn't anything new," said Michael Harrison, a spokesman for Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), who has lobbied for construction of fences and stationing of more agents on the border. "It just reinforces Duncan's view that you need to have a clear and defined border."

Hunter last year provided Mexican authorities with a list of more than a dozen incidents in which Mexican soldiers or agents were reported to have entered U.S. territory. The matter came up as Hunter sought the release of a U.S. Marine who had inadvertently crossed into Mexico and was jailed in Tijuana on charges stemming from two disassembled weapons found in his truck. The Marine, Sgt. Brian Johnston, was released after two weeks in custody.

Mexican authorities have accused U.S. border agents of chasing suspected illegal immigrants onto Mexican soil. The Mexican consul general in Calexico charged last summer that Border Patrol agents crossed half a mile into Mexico along a remote stretch where no border fence exists. The Border Patrol said agents believed that they were in the United States.

Mexico has proposed better marking of the 2,000-mile border. West of Texas, where the Rio Grande divides the two nations, the border is marked by a string of about 280 monuments, most of them 6 feet tall and mounted on bases, and spaced as much as five miles apart.

U.S. and Mexican authorities plan to identify "critical" border sections and improve marking by installing poles with flashing lights and coated in reflective paint.

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