Dangerous Rock Attacks on Border Patrol Agents Are Up; Chopper Brought Down by Rock in ‘79

Assaults by illegals, coyotes and narco-smugglers using large chunks of rock on US Border Patrol agents enforcing the US/Mexico border continues to escalate.

These attacks can be life-threatening. In some instances, Border Patrol agents have been critically injured when struck in the face or head.

Known as "rockings" among the agents, some of these attacks have left agents no choice but to fire their weapons in self-defense. Unfortunately, in some instances, Border Patrol agents acting in self defense have killed their assailants.

Critics, meanwhile, insist Border Patrol agents are too quick to use lethal force during rockings, implying that the rocks that are being thrown are small and do not pose a life threatening attack. But evidence shows that rocks that were thrown at agents who fired their weapons in response were of a size that did indeed pose a potentially life threatening assault.

And attacks on Border Patrol agents with large life-endangering rocks are on the rise.

Perhaps the most dramatic illustration of the threat that “rockings” pose to Border Patrol agents occurred more than two decades ago, in 1979, when two now retired Border Patrol agents narrowly averted being killed when their helicopter was brought down by a single large rock that was thrown at their chopper by an illegal who was among a group of illegals who were trying to cross the border. The two agents in the chopper were helping agents on the ground track the illegals.

The chopper, 74 Fox, was brought down in the river near Tijuana by a rock at an altitude of only 30 to 40 feet, according to former Border Patrol agents familiar with theincident.

“74 Fox was working a group [of illegals] a short distance north of the flood channel and a guide came north and started throwing rocks. He got lucky and a rock struck the tail rotor about 9 or 10 inches from the end of the rotor blade,” Homeland Security Today was told by a former Border Patrol agent directly familiar with the incident.

“The rotor blade is made of a honeycomb material covered by a thin sheet of aluminum and as it was spinning in excess of 10,000 RPM, the end sheared off,” the former agent said, noting that “this caused the helicopter to immediately start spinning uncontrollably. [The pilot] said he figured that he had 10 or 15 seconds before he lost consciousness; so he just dumped the collective losing all lift and crash land[ed] the helicopter on its skids. If he had not done that, the helicopter probably would have crashed on its side, killing both of them.”

But what’s more frightening, the former Border Patrol agent said, is “it was clear the [illegal] aliens would have attacked the agent-pilot and co-pilot,” noting that he’d “spoke with the pilot a few days ago and he emphasized that to me. I also spoke with the chief pilot on [the chopper], and he reiterated that.”

Late last month, the controversy over the Border Patrol’s use of lethal force in the face of life-threatening assaults by illegals and narco-traffickers with large rocks and other dangerous weapons erupted again when a Border Patrol agent killed 40-year-old Jose Yanez Reyes, who was with a group trying to illegally enter the US at the San Diego border with Tijuana, Mexico. The agent fired in self-defense at Reyes when Reyes and others in his group began to hurl not only large rocks at the agents, but also a piece of nail-studded wood that struck one of the agents in the head.

Despite reports to the contrary, though, potentially life threatening rockings and other assaults on Border Patrol agents have not substantively declined and do in fact pose a lethal threat to Border Patrol agents.

In June, a San Diego man who was attacked with a rock that hit his head succumbed to his injuries.

Nevertheless, as have most opponents of Border Patrol’s use of lethal force in encounters like that with Reyes in which evidence clearly shows Border Patrol agents have suffered serious injuries, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of San Diego & Imperial Counties Executive Director Kevin Keenan asserted, “we simply cannot allow our law-enforcement agents to use lethal force when confronted with rock throwers.”

These sorts of statements, Border Patrol agents and officials said, gives the impression that the rocks that are being thrown are the kinds of small stones “you’d find in your home garden,” as one put it. “But they’re not.”

Border Patrol officials have repeatedly pointed out to Homeland Security Today that the rocks that typically are thrown at Border Patrol agents aren’t ordinary garden rocks. They include large chunks of pavement, busted up pieces of cinder blocks and other large rocks that frequently weigh a pound or more.

Photos in this story provided to Homeland Security Today by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) depict just a few of the agents who have been injured by being hit in the face and head with these "rocks." Other photos show the size of some of the rocks that caused these injuries. The images graphically demonstrate the seriousness of thethreat that "rockings" pose to the Border Patrol agents responsible for enforcing the southern border.

“The sizes of the rocks vary. Yet, the potential for serious bodily injury or death is pretty much the same, regardless of the size,” a veteran Border Patrol agent told Homeland Security Today. “Agents understand that if they are struck by a rock, they could be hit in the eye, mouth, face [and] head, stunning them long enough for an attacker to get to their service weapon(s) and or knocked unconscious or killed. As we have all seen in videos of rock attacks, the attackers use the rocks or the threat of rocks to allow their associates to flank agents, get closer to them or to their vehicles and or other agents.”

“A rock is a dangerous weapon and can cause grievous bodily injuries and or death, thus meeting the ‘bar’ for a deadly force incident,” the agent stated.

Just as was the pilot and co-pilot of the Border Patrol chopper that “rockers” brought down more than 20 years ago, agents today are just as concerned that they could be shot dead if they’re unlucky enough to be “knocked out” by being hit in the head with a large rock, past and present Border Patrol agents and officials said.

“What’s to stop one of these people who successfully knock out an agent by a blow to his head with one of these large rocks from then taking the agent’s firearm and executing him?" Homeland Security Today was told a year ago by T.J. Bonner, then president of the National Border Patrol Council and a former senior Border Patrol agent.

Other Border Patrol officials posed the same question. Some said they fear it’s just a matter of time before an agent is found dead from an execution after having been knocked unconscious by a rock blow to the head.

"They’re not chunking pebbles,” adamantly explained CBP spokesman, Mark Qualia.

Indeed. Numerous Border Patrol agents told Homeland Security Today they’ve regularly had rocks larger than your hand thrown at them, some of which agents have shown to me during my trips to the US/Mexico border.

While apprehending a man who’d slipped into the US near Nogales, Ariz. 20 years ago, now retired Border Patrol agent Henry Thysell was hit in the chest with a piece of pavement that had been thrown by another illegal who hadn’t yet made it through the border fence. The concrete busted one of Thysell’s ribs.

"Agents don’t shoot their weapon unless they fear for their lives or the lives of their partners or innocent third persons," Acting Assistant Chief Patrol Agent in San Diego, Justin De La Torre, told the Los Angeles Times.

“I have worked the Chula Vista and Imperial Beach [California] areas famous for rockings of agents as well as Nogales and Douglas, Arizona. San Diego agents are known to defend themselves with deadly force when rocked," said a veteran Border Patrol agent who has worked the southern border.

"When we were sent to Douglas/Nogales, the ‘local’ agents were all ordered to run north, away from the illegals/Mexican nationals throwing the rocks," the agent said. "Heck, in Douglas, things were so bad that agents were not allowed to enter the ditch that runs along the border fence without the Sector Response Team (SRT) present or a supervisor’s approval [until] they had enough force to do so safely."

But “when the San Diego agents, working the exact same areas began getting rocked, it did not take long for the illegals/Mexican nationals to see that throwing rocks at San Diego agents might not be too smart,” the agent said, noting that “San Diego agents all drew their weapons and charged the rock throwers.”

As a result, “rockings went down. San Diego agents also jumped into the ditch in order to deny its use by smugglers, guides and illegal aliens.”

Continuing, the agent said “the road that runs along the border fence just west of the south bound lanes of Interstate-5 on the international border [south of San Diego] is called ‘memo lane’ because of the constant rock attacks on agents and their vehicles that agents must write memos on).”

The agent added that “when the pepper-ball systems came online and [were] used in the field … the new agents saw these new less than lethal weapons” as giving “them a choice (if the situation allows) between [the type of] response” they use.”

But the problem with this, the agent explained, is “new agents were [found to be] less likely to draw their service pistol, shotgun or rifle because they believed or were instructed to [use] the pepper-ball system. This was a huge officer safety issue. Yes, the less than lethal systems are great and have a huge role in daily operations,” but “agents must understand the use of force and not think less than lethal first. They need to know when it is a life threatening situation [that] deadly force is justified.”

The agent emphasized that “agents are not looking to kill people. They simply are looking to do their job and go home at the end of their shift. They (all agents) owe it to themselves, as well as their families. The famous rocking incident on You Tube was a great ‘what not to do’ for agents, although some of the agents involved with that incident received awards for showing restraint.”

In that incident, Border Patrol Agent Nicholas Corbett was charged with second-degree murder, manslaughter and negligent homicide for what prosecutors claimed was his unprovoked shooting and killing of 22-year-old Francisco Javier Dominguez-Rivera on Jan. 12, 2007. Corbett had spotted four illegal immigrants fleeing south to Mexico in Cochise County, Arizona when he maneuvered his patrol truck to intercept the group. He ordered the Mexican nationals to surrender and get on the ground. Dominguez-Rivera though threatened to “crush [Corbett’s] skull” with a rock.
Following the judge having declared a second mistrial in the high-profile prosecution of Corbett, prosecutors said they would not seek a third trial.

Border Patrol agents have fired in self defense in similar situations.

In one incident in late 2008 near the area where 14-year-old Sergio Adrián Hernández Huereca was shot and killed on the US side of the Paso Del Norte bridge in El Paso, Texas in June 2010 as he and fellow agents were assaulted with rocks hurled by Huereca and several other youths, an agent was forced to fire at a suspected coyote who crouched behind a tree on the bank of the Rio Grande as he pulled a pistol and threatened to kill the agents as they worked to apprehend the illegals this person apparently had helped to illegally cross the border.

A Border Patrol agent pointed out that “the Mexican police do nothing to prevent, stop or apprehend those Mexican nationals that attack US Border Patrol agents. The fact that agents draw their weapons and aim them in the direction of the attackers as a warning (time permitting) does not deter these rock throwers. Agents have to decide in a matter of a split second or so as to their response to this kind of deadly attack.”

What needs to be done, the agent stressed to Homeland Security Today, is “we need a clear message be sent to Mexico, its law enforcement, religious leaders, political leaders and their media. [And] that message is simple: don’t attack US agents. Do not throw rocks at them – that they will defend themselves, their country and each other with the force that is required to stop the threat, as authorized by law, too include deadly force.”

The agent said “Mexico always seems shocked and outraged when one of its citizens is shot after attacking Border Patrol agents with rocks, suggesting the use of deadly force in each case was too much force and unjustified. Their attitude is that the agents should do anything but defend themselves.”

“If Mexico would only use some of that outrage and direct it at those people who are attacking agents and educate them about the dangers they will face if they attack US agents,” the agent continued, “then their citizens who are killed or wounded when they assault and threaten a Border Patrol agent might decrease …”

In a recent statement, the Mexican Foreign Ministry said “this past December 15, the United States and Mexico issued a joint statement about violence prevention in the border region to avoid the factors on both sides of the border that result in this type of incident. In this context, the Foreign Ministry reiterates that the use of firearms to repel attacks with stones … represents a disproportionate use of force.”

The “bottomline,” the Border Patrol agent said, is that “when they can, agents have zero problem using their officer’s presence, verbal judo, less than lethal systems/platforms … but when deadly force is necessary, they will act accordingly. Nobody should be shocked when a rock thrower is shot. Stop throwing rocks. It really is not rocket science.”

Nevertheless, just as they have in the past, Mexican government and US illegal immigrant-rights activists who’ve long protested what they maintain is excessive force by Border Patrol agents, condemned the shooting of Reyes.

Meanwhile, opponents of Border Patrol’s use of lethal force during potentially life-threatening assaults like Think Progress stated a year ago that “rock-throwing assaults represent a diminishing” threat to border patrol agents in a story about the Border Patrol agent who shot and killed Hernández Huereca on the border near El Paso, Texas.

More recently, the Los Angeles Times, in reporting on the fatal shooting of Reyes, stated “assaults [on Border Patrol agents] have dropped dramatically in recent years.”

In June 2010, citing “incomplete” data from the Border Patrol, the Associated Press reported that violent attacks against agents declined in 2009 along most of the border for the first time in seven years, and that assaults in FY 2010 were only “slightly up.”

By the end of FY 2010, according to statistics CBP provided to Homeland Security Today, there were only 12 fewer “total assaults” against Border Patrol agents than there were in FY 2009, and there were nearly 40 more reported rock throwings at agents.

There were 756 “rocking assaults” in FY 2009 and 793 in FY 2010. There were 769 in FY 2008.

For FY 2011 through May 31, there were 299 rocking assaults and 476 total assaults, or already close to half the number of total assaults that were officially reported by Border Patrol agents in FY 2010.

But these numbers only include the assaults that are officially reported, explained a veteran Border Patrol agent who talked to Homeland Security Today on background.

“As for the stats, well, the last thing agents want to do at the end of a shift is cut paperwork. So, if they were rocked and not hit, or their vehicle was not hit, many rocking events go unreported,” the official explained, pointing out that the “official” statistics do not reflect the number of actual “rockings” against Border Patrol agents.

“Another huge problem is the fact the FBI [refuses to] prosecute illegals that assault Border Patrol agents if those illegals [show] any sign of them having been in a fight,” the agent said. “So, when an agent is attacked and the illegal has some bruises, the FBI normally decides, ‘well, looks like you got the best of him,’ so, no charges are filed … So that is another reason why agents blow off reporting incidents … The aliens [meanwhile] are asked if they want to press charges, and if the alien does want to, the agent will also follow up with charges against the alien. However, if the alien does not want to, the agent will simply not file. They do note the incident in the alien’s I-213 [record of deportation].”

The agent added that “anyone with cuts, bruises or [who is] disheveled in appearance is asked to file against the agents.”

“There is an anger developing in Mexicans toward America, more than I have ever seen before in the past 30 plus years,” a veteran Border Patrol agent said. “Many of the crossers have lived in the US, and/or are part of an organized gang. These criminal aliens have had their collective belligerent attitude tempered by gang interactions. Then add to this the order from the cartels to use whatever force is necessary to get the [drug] loads through, and itis a situation ripe for violence [see the June 8 "Kimery Report," Cartel Threats, Attacks on US Law Enforcement and the Question of ‘Spill Over’ Violence].

“The cartel violence in Mexico has ignited a generalized lawlessness that is not cartel connected.  This lawlessness has, of course, also affected those regularly crossing the border,” said former Border Patrol agent, G. Alan Ferguson, executive assistant and vice chairman of the National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers.

Ferguson “there’s an arrogance and greater boldness among those crossing the line,” and “this has come about, in my opinion, due to those regularly crossing the border seeing our own government not being serious about closing the border …”

Homeland Security Today reported a year ago that supporters of illegal immigration and deniers of escalating border violence have asserted that a Border Patrol study is evidence that Border Patrol agents face less danger than large, urban police officers. The study showed three percent of Border Patrol agents and officers were assaulted in FY 2009 compared to 11 percent of police officers and sheriff’s deputies who were assaulted during the same period.

But critics of the naysayers retorted that the statistics are misleading. First, they noted, Border Patrol agents do not deal on a daily basis with the far larger numbers of people that urban street cops do and, secondly, not only are Border Patrol agents regularly assaulted but, unlike a metropolitan police officer, the individuals Border Patrol agents deal with are inherently either more prone to violence or are more likely to be a recidivist criminal.

The Department of Justice reported that more than 70 percent of criminal cases in Arizona involve drugs or illegals. Well more than half of the drugs Mexico’s transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) smuggle into the US via traditional land routes are brought in through Arizona, and nearly half of all illegals now crossing the border are doing so in Arizona.

Many illegals have previously been arrested or convicted for criminal activity, according to a May 9, 2005 Government Accountability Office (GAO) study of 55,322 incarcerated illegal aliens.

The GAO report, Information on Certain Illegal Aliens Arrested in the United States, disclosed that this population had been “arrested at least a total of 459,614 times, averaging about eight arrests per illegal alien. Nearly all had more than one arrest” and “38 percent had between two and five arrests.” Thirty-two percent had been arrested between six and ten times, while 26 percent had been arrested 11 or more times.

GAO found the incarcerated population of illegals it studied had been “arrested for a total of about 700,000 criminal offenses averaging about 13 offenses per illegal alien.”

About 45 percent of all offenses were drug or immigration offenses; about 15 percent were property-related offenses such as burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft and property damage; 12 percent were for violent offenses such as murder, robbery, assault and sex-related crimes; and the balance was “for such other offenses as traffic violations, including driving under the influence; fraud – including forgery and counterfeiting; weapons violations; and obstruction of justice.”

According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, at the end of fiscal year 2008, there were 557,762 illegal aliens who had been arrested for less serious crimes who never showed up for their court hearings.

Bonner said "the latest statistics I’ve seen indicates that about 13 percent [of the illegals who are apprehended] have criminal records," which possibly indicates that "the majority" who are caught "are coming to the United States" to seek employment and a better way of life. But, he added, that’s still a significant number that could pose a threatening situation for both Border Patrol agents and state and local law enforcement.

Meanwhile, a US federal prosecutor in southern Texas told Homeland Security Today earlier this year that his office is “overwhelmed” with recidivist illegal border crossers, many of whom, he said, have criminal records – including violent crimes and assaults.

Photos courtesy of US Customs and Border Protection, National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers 

The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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