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Killing of Border Patrol agent prompts multi-agency manhunt

U.S. and Mexican officials are searching for those responsible for the death of Robert Rosas. Tecate police say they arrested a man walking near the crime scene with a Border Patrol-issued weapon.

July 25, 2009|Richard Marosi

SAN DIEGO — A U.S. Border Patrol agent was fatally shot while pursuing a group of people in a remote valley about 60 miles east of San Diego, triggering a manhunt by federal, state and Mexican authorities, Homeland Security officials said Friday.

Robert Rosas, a three-year agency veteran, was responding to an incursion Thursday night just inside the steel border fence when one or more assailants opened fire, authorities said. He died at the scene.

Rosas, a 30-year-old father of two, was the first border agent to be shot and killed in the line of duty in nearly a decade, officials said. "It was a cowardly act against an agent trying to protect this country," said Rick Barlow, acting chief of the agency's San Diego sector, where flags flew at half-staff outside of headquarters in Chula Vista.

U.S. officials said they were working closely with their counterparts in Mexico. Police in Tecate, Mexico, announced late Friday that they had arrested a man walking near the crime scene with a Border Patrol-issued weapon shortly after the shooting. The man, Ernesto Parra Valenzuela, 36, was injured and was taken to a hospital, according to a news release.

The FBI said late Friday that no one had been arrested or charged in connection with the killing.

Earlier in the day, the Mexican military sent about a dozen vehicles to secure the sparsely populated area south of the border fence. Mexican federal police were also seen searching.

The attack occurred near the rural town of Campo in eastern San Diego County. The hilly, scrub-covered terrain has long been a favored spot for smugglers.

There were signs of a struggle, and at least one of the gunmen may have been injured, investigators said. Two sources with knowledge of the investigation said K-9 units tracked a blood trail to the border. The assailants took Rosas' weapon and radio, according to the sources, who were not authorized to speak publicly.

Raul Tovar, a longtime Campo resident, said he was barbecuing when gunfire rang out in the distance. "I heard two shots. Crack. Crack. First I thought it was . . . my neighbor shooting coyotes, but it sounded like large-caliber bullets."

Within minutes, scores of agents began scouring the area and two helicopters hovered with searchlights, Tovar said.

The attack occurred during a period of relative tranquillity on the San Diego County-Mexico border. Apprehensions of illegal immigrants and assaults against agents are down significantly from last year.

But agents have made numerous drug seizures in the Campo area in recent weeks, mostly at the Interstate 8 checkpoint near Pine Valley, leading some observers to speculate that frustrated smugglers are retaliating.

U.S. authorities said it is too soon say whether smugglers are escalating their tactics.

The FBI announced a $100,000 reward for information leading to the capture of the attackers. Hospitals were urged to report any suspicious people seeking treatment. "There's still a lot of work to do," said Keith Slotter, the special agent in charge of the FBI's San Diego office.

The region south of the fence is a largely lawless expanse with little to no police presence. The nearest police department is in Tecate, about 20 miles away.

The events leading up to the shooting began about 9 p.m. Thursday, when agents using night vision equipment spotted a group near the fence. Rosas and other agents, in separate vehicles, headed to the scene near Shockey Truck Trail.

Agents heard the shots and tried to contact Rosas, but his radio had gone dead. Rosas had apparently gotten out of his vehicle to chase the intruders. Pursuing suspects alone is a routine part of the job, and in most cases, they give up without incident, Border Patrol agents said. But there are obvious perils.

"He was doing what agents do out there, trying to head them off on the trail," said Chris Bauder, the president of the local branch of the Border Patrol union. "But we never know who we're going to be encountering. You don't know whether they're coming into the country to work, or looking to do harm."

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the department's full resources would be used in the investigation. "This act of violence will not stand -- nor will any act of violence against the Border Patrol," she said.

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richard.marosi@latimes.com

Times staff writer Tony Perry in San Diego and Times photographer Don Bartletti in Campo, Calif., contributed to this report.

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