Mexican police and forensic experts examine the scene after a U.S. Border… (Alejandro Cossio / Associated…)
Reporting from Tijuana -- The three men crawled through a sewage-crusted drain and then jumped the border fence, determined to get into San Diego. They encountered U.S. Border Patrol agents just as determined to stop them.
When the agents captured one man, they were pelted by rocks and sticks, according to U.S. authorities. In response, an agent shot one of the rock-throwers in the head, a fatal wound that knocked him off the fence and back into Mexico.
The shooting Tuesday evening renewed the debate over the proper use of force along the increasingly fortified U.S.-Mexico border. It was immediately condemned by the Mexican government and immigrant rights groups, who have long protested what they consider excessive tactics by U.S. Border Patrol agents.
But U.S. authorities said the agents were acting in self-defense, pointing out that rock attacks have resulted in disabling injuries for agents. Although assaults have dropped dramatically in recent years, it's not uncommon for agents to get pelted in the area of Tuesday's confrontation, which borders a dangerous crime-ridden neighborhood in Tijuana.
"Agents don't shoot their weapon unless they fear for their lives or the lives of their partners or innocent third persons," said Justin De La Torre, an acting assistant chief patrol agent in San Diego.
Several similar cases in recent years, including a 2005 incident in San Diego where an agent fatally shot a smuggler in the back, have resulted in agents being cleared of wrongdoing. Rights groups say the recurring incidents show a disturbing pattern.
"We simply cannot allow our law enforcement agents to use lethal force when confronted with rock throwers," said Kevin Keenan, executive director of the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties.
The three suspects couldn't have picked a tougher place to cross the border. The wide-open area a mile west of the San Ysidro Port of Entry is doubled-fenced and constantly patrolled and monitored by video cameras.
The two agents immediately captured one man, who began resisting. One of the other suspects then climbed atop the fence and started throwing rocks and a piece of wood with exposed nails that struck one agent in the head, according to San Diego police.
When the man started throwing another rock, the other agent, a three-year veteran of the force, fired the fatal shot, police said. The dead man was identified by Mexican authorities as 40-year-old Jose Yanez Reyes. The injured Border Patrol agent was hospitalized and released.
Residents of the ramshackle Tijuana neighborhood bordering the area expressed mixed feelings about the confrontation. It was not immediately clear if all of the suspects were immigrants or smugglers guiding them across the border.
Maria Cervantes, 84, who gives tamales to immigrants resting at a small park across the four-lane freeway from the fence, said they deserve sympathy. "They are only crossing because they are hungry," she said.
But Cervantes and other residents loathe the smugglers and bandits who prey on the immigrants as well as residents. If the men did throw rocks, the agents probably had the right to defend themselves, they said.
But Ricardo Valladares, 27, a body shop painter, questioned why agents had to shoot to kill. "Obviously, they have to retaliate," he said. "But to kill him for throwing a rock? Why don't [agents] just use rubber bullets?"
The FBI and San Diego police have launched investigations, which is routine in officer-involved shootings along the border. Mexican authorities are also investigating.