WASHINGTON — Violence along the border with Mexico will likely increase this year as the administration bolsters Border Patrol staffing and adds more fencing and technology to catch illegal immigrants, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Tuesday.
On Saturday, U.S. Border Patrol Agent Luis Aguilar, 32, was killed in California's Imperial Sand Dunes recreation area, run over by suspected drug smugglers as he was laying down a spike strip to stop their fleeing Hummer.
Aguilar's death has drawn attention to escalating violence on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico divide, which Chertoff and other administration officials attributed partly to heightened border security measures.
"Experience shows that the more successful you are in putting pressure on criminal organizations, the more violent they will become in fighting back," said Chertoff, who wore a pin depicting a Border Patrol badge draped in black. "The sad, tragic fact is that the increase in violence is very consistent with other metrics we've had that show we're getting increased success with stopping the flow across the border."
In an interview with The Times and the Associated Press, Chertoff and Border Patrol officials said the agency considered the agent's death a murder -- the first since 1998 of a Border Patrol agent -- and was working closely with Mexico to investigate. The Hummer's driver appeared to swerve not just to avoid the spike strip, but to "hit the agent intentionally," one witness said.
Mexican officials reportedly found the Hummer, burned, in Mexicali.
Chertoff and other officials said Aguilar's death highlighted a need to continue such initiatives as a fence.
Several border groups have sharply criticized Homeland Security's plan to build a border fence on private land. Many residents, mayors and business owners also object to Chertoff's announcement that if necessary, his agency will seize land from unwilling property owners in order to continue construction.
"I know it gripes some people; they don't want it on their property," Chertoff said.
But, he continued, "if the [Border Patrol] chief says to me building a barrier, building a fence would make it safer in this particular area . . . I'm going to use every available tool, including the courts."
Meanwhile, conservatives critical of President Bush's policies on illegal immigration have cited Aguilar's death in renewing calls to pardon Ignacio "Nacho" Ramos and Jose Alonso Compean. The two were Border Patrol agents, sentenced in 2006 to more than 10 years in prison after shooting an unarmed Mexican drug smuggler in the buttocks as he fled to Mexico. (They were found guilty of violating his civil rights and trying to cover up their actions.)
"Obviously, Aguilar didn't know if he could use his gun to shoot at this car coming at him," Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) said on Fox TV.
Border Patrol officials strongly disputed that.
"It's not a fair comparison, and it diminishes our shock and heartbreak," said National Deputy Chief Ron Colburn.
Chertoff said there was no indication that Aguilar had time to defend himself.
Both Colburn and Chertoff stressed that Border Patrol agents are allowed to use force to defend themselves. Chertoff said that agents have been attacked with firearms, knives, bats, steel pipes, vehicles, boats and slingshots. Violence on the border increased 31% from 2006 to 2007, and attacks on agents jumped 44% over the same period.
Border officials say the burgeoning violence is rooted partly in criminal organizations' turf battles and lawlessness on Mexico's side.
Some 2,500 Mexicans died in drug-related violence in 2007, and the nation's president, Felipe Calderon, has made combating drug cartels his government's priority.
Chertoff linked the jump in violence to an array of U.S. enforcement measures, including fencing.
He said that his agency had built about 170 miles of pedestrian fencing and 130 miles of vehicle barriers.
He also cited increased Border Patrol staffing -- which now stands at 15,000 -- and policies in which illegal immigrants are deported and not released.
The administration has set up protocols that allow Homeland Security to coordinate with Mexico when violence crosses the border.
Chertoff said that Mexican officials reacted promptly after Aguilar's death, and that he had discussed with them additional steps they might take "to turn up pressure on cartels."
Chertoff added that the violence would require continued close cooperation, including joint intelligence-gathering and investigations on both sides of the border.