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The State

Accounts Support Mexican Officials in Furor After Crash Killing Migrants

Hospital and police witnesses, plus an ID policy, counter a report that consular officials tried to help smuggling suspects escape.

January 17, 2003|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO -- Hospital and California Highway Patrol officials said Thursday they have no evidence to corroborate allegations that the Mexican Consulate at the border here tried to help suspected immigrant smugglers escape after their high-speed flight from U.S. officials led to the death of two migrants in a horrific crash last week.

U.S. officials said a day earlier they were investigating allegations by an unidentified source that Mexican authorities had tried to spring at least one suspected smuggler from a hospital on the same day the suspects had allegedly contributed to a crash on Interstate 8 that also injured 13 people.

Mexican officials reacted with outrage, saying their consular officers had visited the scene of the crash near Descanso and area hospitals only to look after Mexican citizens who were injured.

Despite those assurances, the FBI was continuing an investigation Thursday into the incident, and the Border Patrol and its parent agency, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, had grown tight-lipped about the case.

Several factors, however, seemed to favor the Mexican officials' version of events:

The U.S. confirmed that it has issued INS identity cards to Mexican consular officials, who work closely with U.S. immigration officials at the main port of entry at San Ysidro. U.S. officials had said a day earlier that the Mexican officials may have been carrying phony IDs.

A spokeswoman at Sharp Grossmont Hospital confirmed that Mexican officials met at the hospital with three injured immigrants but said the officials made no effort to pressure doctors or nurses to release any of them, as alleged by the unidentified source.

"We don't release patients to anybody unless they're well enough to leave the hospital. Two of the crash victims were treated for minor injuries and released because they weren't under arrest or in anybody's custody," said Jane Eidson of the hospital. "They simply left the hospital and walked away."

If anything, the U.S. officials could be taken to task for leaving the illegal immigrants alone at the facility, which left them free to remain on U.S. soil.

A CHP sergeant who was the last on the scene of the Jan. 9 crash said he saw no evidence that anyone outside the investigation tried to interfere or free coyotes, Mexican slang for smugglers. Two of the suspected coyotes are charged with murder and other crimes.

The crash occurred in the late afternoon after a protracted chase. Border Patrol agents laid down a series of spike strips on Interstate 8, one of which punctured a tire on the fleeing pickup truck, sending men and women who had been riding in the back hurtling down a steep hillside.

The FBI is investigating "information" that Mexican consular officials used cards to misidentify themselves as INS agents when they rushed to the crash site east of San Diego.

Alberto Lozano, spokesman for the Mexican Consulate, angrily denied that consular officials misrepresented themselves.

On Thursday, INS spokeswoman Lauren Mack said relations between the Mexican Consulate and U.S. immigration officials are normally cordial, with Mexican officials working side by side with the U.S. officials on many issues.

"Their role at the port is to help Mexican nationals, but they are also of tremendous help to us when we detain juveniles who cross illegally," Mack said. "The consulate helps us reunite them with their parents." Mack called the consular officials she has worked with "professionals in every way."

Radio host and former San Diego Mayor Roger Hedgecock had his listeners in a frenzy earlier in the week when he accused the Mexicans of posing as INS agents and interfering in a murder investigation.

The driver of the pickup, Carlos Sanchez Moreno, and another smuggling suspect, Anselmo Pedroza-Arizmendiz, have been charged with murder and other counts.

Hedgecock also alleged that consular officials passed themselves off as INS agents at the hospital, demanding that two associates of the suspected smugglers be released to their custody.

Some of the consular officials rode from the crash scene to the hospital with at least one of the smuggling suspects. But the officials insisted that they rode along only to give aid and comfort to their countrymen, not to win their freedom.

In fact, a consular spokesman urged the prompt and successful prosecution of the suspects.

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