Potentially Lethal Attacks Pose Risks to CBP Personnel on SW Border

Security and enforcement of America’s Southwest border has vastly improved (see Measuring Border Security in the March 2013 Homeland Security Today), but it continues to be a very dangerous place for Customs and Border Protection (CPB).

For at least a decade, the most violent acts against CBP officers and Border Patrol agents have occurred on the Southwest border, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). And while total assaults on Border Patrol agents have incrementally declined from a high of 1,097 in FY 2008 (compared to 752 in FY 2006 and 987 in FY 2007) to 555 in fiscal year 2012, these numbers do not tell the whole story.

The fact is, serious and potentially deadly physical assaults and attacks with guns and other weapons escalated in FY 2012, according to CBP data provided to Homeland Security Today. In FY 2012, for example, there were 51 assaults against Border Patrol agents involving “shootings” and “weapons,” compared to 40 in FY 2011 (a 27.5 percent increase) and 42 attacks in FY 2010.

In Border Patrol’s San Diego Sector, total assaults against agents increased almost 73 percent from 77 attacks in Fiscal Year 2011, to 133 in FY 2012.

Across the Southwest border there were a total of 194 “physical” assaults on Border Patrol agents in FY 2012, compared to 126 in FY 2011– a 54 percent increase. Physical assaults in 2012 were the highest in nearly a decade, when there were 173 physical attacks in FY 2006. There were roughly 150 assaults each fiscal year from 2008 through 2010.

The 50 assaults against Border Patrol agents involving vehicles in FY 2012 also was the highest since FY 2010, when there were 37 attacks — a 35 percent increase. In FY 2011, there were 39 vehicular assaults against agents.

A Border Patrol agent was injured on Jan. 8, 2013, when 26-year-old Jose Alberto Izquierdo-Gonzalez, a Mexican national living in Laredo, Texas illegally, rammed the Ford F-250 pick-up he was driving into a Border Patrol SUV following a pursuit by Border Patrol agents who’d observed Izquierdo-Gonzalez picking up individuals near the Rio Grande.

According to court records and testimony, Izquierdo-Gonzalez speed away from the riverbank after the agents’ vehicles approached. Following a vehicular pursuit through a residential area during which Izquierdo-Gonzalez drove on residential sidewalks and knocked down a stop sign, Izquierdo-Gonzalez finally lost control and came to a stop facing the agents’ vehicles, at which time he drove his truck into them, injuring one of the agents. He then sped away, lost control and slammed into a ditch.

Izquierdo-Gonzalez pleaded guilty this month to using a motor vehicle to assault a Border Patrol agent and to smuggle illegal aliens.

While the total number of assaults on Border Patrol agents has been declining, physical assaults and assaults with rocks — referred to as “rockings” by CBP — have been risen since 2001 when plotted on a graph.

Officials acknowledged to Homeland Security Today that there have been dips here and there in various categories of assaults, but they stressed that this data shouldn’t necessarily be seen as an indication of a persistent, long term downward trend. Authorities emphasized that the escalation in certain forms of attacks, especially using guns and weapons and other methods of assault, continue to pose a serious problem.
 
CBP’s intelligence component has repeatedly cautioned that as it “works to gain further operational control of the border, violen[t] activity is expected to increase,” especially because of “criminal resistance to tightening operational control along the Southwest border … increased law enforcement presence,” and “turf battles between rival narcotics and alien smuggling organizations,” who, since roughly 2006, have been battling it out for control of increasingly hard to establish smuggling conduits into the United States.

Homeland Security Today has reported for years that because of the US’s lock-down of the Southern border, south-of-the-border transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) have become increasingly dangerous. Two years ago, for example, intelligence obtained by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) that was deemed “reliable” was distributed to southern states’ fusion centers warning them that “the Gulf Cartel had directed [that] no more ‘drug loads’ in the US will be lost (to law enforcement).”

According to DEA’s source for the intelligence, the cartel’s “drug transporters [were ordered] to ‘shoot it out with law enforcement’ or suffer similar consequences from Gulf Cartel leadership.’”

“While this information mostly relates to those southern border states with a large Gulf Cartel influence,” DEA warned, it also cautioned that the intelligence indicated “… a possible new trend in violence toward US law enforcement.”

In response, the Oklahoma Information Fusion Center, for example, issued a “Situational Awareness Bulletin” stating DEA’s information was being “provided [to state law enforcement officers] in the interest of officer safety and situational awareness,” adding, “law enforcement is encouraged to promptly report any information received from confidential or other sources pertaining to this bulletin …”

The Gulf Cartel’s threat was of particular concern to Oklahoma law enforcement because Mexico-based TCOs like the Gulf and Los Zetas cartels, were — and still are — a serious problem in the Sooner state largely because vital north/south, east/west interstate highways intersect in Oklahoma City, where cartels have established narcotics storage and distribution nodes just as they have in San Antonio and other cities along highways used by TCOs to transport their narco-loads.

By the numbers

Despite the story the statistics on attacks on CBP personnel tells, some media have reported that there’s been a consistent decline in assaults on Border Patrol agents on the Southwest border. In late 2011, the Los Angeles Times reported “assaults [on Border Patrol agents] had dropped dramatically in recent years.” But, according to CBP, there were 752 and 987 total assaults respectively in FY 2006 and FY 2007. And in fiscal year 2008, total assaults escalated to 1,097. Overall, assaults didn’t significantly decline until FY 2011 when they dropped 36 percent to 675 attacks. There was a 17 percent decline between fiscal years 2011 and 2012.

In June 2010, citing “incomplete” data from Border Patrol, the Associated Press reported that violent attacks against Border Patrol 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.”

According to CBP Office of Intelligence and Operations Coordination annual reports on violence against CBP personnel, in FY 2010 assaults jumped 134 percent in the El Paso Sector and 61 percent in the Tucson Sector. In fiscal year 2009, assaults in the El Paso Sector had already vaulted by 43 percent, and assaults in the Laredo Sector had leaped 168 percent, compared to FY 2008, during which period the San Diego Sector sustained the largest increase in assaults (48 percent) compared to FY 2007 when attacks increased 27 percent.

Border Patrol agents also were forced to open fire on assailants in defense of themselves or others 49 times during FY 2009, compared to 38 times in FY 2010 and 32 times in FY 2008. Agents were fired on 38 times in FY 2007.
 
Another form of assault that has received widespread media attention in recent years are "rocking" assaults on Border Patrol agents in which the agents’ had no choice but to discharge their weapons in self defense. "Rocking” attacks on CBP personnel have caused serious injuries.

Rock assaults decreased to the lowest level in FY 2012, 249 compared to a high of 793 in FY 2010, but rock attacks overall have steadily increased since late FY 2005 — as have physical attacks.

In the meantime, however, opponents of Border Patrol’s use of lethal force when confronted by potentially life-threatening assaults with large rocks have consistently implied that rockings have been on a long downward trend. Think Progress, for example, claimed in 2010 that “rock-throwing assaults represent[ed] a diminishing” threat to border patrol agents. Yet, in FY 2010 there were 793 rockings against Border Patrol agents, compared to only slightly lower numbers in 2009 (756) and 2008 (769). And between FY 2006 and FY 2007, rocking assaults increased by almost 48 percent.

Rock assaults on Border Patrol agents generally are perpetrated by illegal aliens trying to illegally cross the border, or by ruthless Mexican cartels desperate to get their narco-loads into the United States.

Earlier this month in separate incidents, two Border Patrol agents were assaulted with rocks while on patrol in San Diego County.

The first assault occurred on the evening in the Otay Mountain area when a Border Patrol agent attempted to arrest an undocumented male Mexican national who’d entered the US illegally. During the arrest, the suspect became assaultive and struck the agent twice in the face and head. After a brief struggle, the agent was able to successfully detain the man. The suspect is being held in Department of Homeland Security custody pending charges for assault on a federal agent.

The second incident occurred about a mile west of the San Ysidro, Calif. Port of Entry. A Border Patrol agent responded to four men he’d observed jumping over the primary fence and who continued to run north to the secondary fence with a ladder. The agent was able to apprehend one of the Mexican nationals as the other three returned to Mexico. During the arrest, the three men in Mexico began throwing large rocks over the primary fence at the agent. Fortunately, the agent did not sustain injuries.

Nevertheless, “As he was placing this individual under arrest, the three individuals [on the Mexican side of the border] started throwing rocks from south of the fence," said Border Patrol agent Jerry Conlin, who noted that "rock throwing is probably the most common form of assaults.”

Special Operations Supervisor Michele Morales added that “These [types of] assaults are examples of the unpredictability and inherent dangers that Border Patrol agents face every day while securing our nation’s borders.”

Getting hit by a big rock

“Rockings” against Border Patrol agents dropped from 427 in FY 2011 to 249 in FY 2012, the lowest number since FY 2006, but it’s an attack that continues to pose a danger to agents. Rock assaults have injured dozens of agents, some seriously.

In June 2010, the fiscal year in which there were nearly 800 rocking assaults on Border Patrol agents (compared to 647, 769 and 756 in fiscal years 2007-09 respectively), an agent under attack with large rocks shot and killed a 15-year-old boy who was throwing rocks near the border in El Paso. The El Paso Sector had just experienced the largest increase in attacks on Border Patrol agents (134 percent) of all Southwest Border Patrol sectors.

Six months later, in January, 2011, a 17-year-old boy throwing rocks at Border Patrol agents near Nogales, Ariz. also was shot and killed by a Border Patrol agent acting in self defense. Nogales is located in Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, where there’d been a 61 percent increase in total attacks on Border Patrol agents in FY 2010.

In June, 2011, a San Ysidro Border Patrol agent was forced to shoot and kill one of three Mexican nationals he’d caught illegally trying to enter the US during a fight that injured a second Border Patrol agent who arrived as backup. The two agents tried to arrest the three men, but two of them fled back into Mexico through an opening in the fence. The Border Patrol agents caught the third illegal who resisted arrest and began assaulting the agents.

During the struggle, one of the illegals who’d escaped began throwing large rocks and a length of wood studded with sharp nails at the agents from atop the fence. The nail-studded piece of wood struck one of the agents in the head. As the man continued hurling large chunks of rock, the other agent opened fire, hitting the Mexican national once. The 40-year-old Tijuana resident, Jose Alfredo Yañez Reyes, fell back onto Mexican soil and died at the scene, according to authorities.
 
Following that incident, Mexico’s Foreign Relations Secretariat declared that “The Mexican government energetically condemns the death,” adding, “[We] reiterate that the use of firearms to repel attacks with rocks … represents a disproportionate use of force.”

Meanwhile, Kevin Keenan, executive director of the San Diego American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)  office, stated: “We’re concerned that the Border Patrol has a policy supporting the shooting of rock throwers in any situation. Apparently they do not train their agents to handle these situations better.”

Continuing, Keenan said the “Border Patrol needs to come clean on its policy of shooting rock throwers and reform their use of force.”

Despite plentiful evidence that assaults with huge chunks of stone have caused serious injuries to Border Patrol agents, most opponents of Border Patrol’s use of lethal force in response to “rockings” have expressed sentiments similar to ACLU’s Keenan, who has 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 hurled at Border Patrol agents are the kinds of small stones “you’d find in your home garden,” as one agent put it. “But they’re not,” he emphatically said — and which evidence supports.

Border Patrol officials have repeatedly pointed out to Homeland Security Today that the rocks typically hurled at agents involve rocks that weigh a pound or more, or are large chunks of pavement and busted up pieces of cinder blocks.

The photos that accompany this report that were made available by CBP show just a few of the CBP personnel who have been injured from being struck in the face and head. Other photos show the typical size of the rocks that caused these injuries.

The photos of the injuries are graphic, to be sure, but they illustrate the serious threat "rockings" pose to Border Patrol agents while enforcing the nation’s Southwest border.

“They’re not chunking pebbles,” as CBP spokesman Mark Qualia pointed out.

Indeed. Seasoned Border Patrol agents told Homeland Security Today they’ve regularly had rocks several times larger than your hand forcefully thrown at them. Some of these rocks were shown to me by Border Patrol agents during extended trips I’ve made to the Southwest border since 2008.

“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.

“For Christ’s sake … just look at these photos of injured agents, and the size of the ‘rocks,’ and you tell me we’re not supposed to defend ourselves,” another veteran Border Patrol agent expressed.

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

Bringing down helicopters

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 thrown at their chopper by an illegal who was among a group of illegals 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 the incident.

“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 familiar with the incident.
 
“The rotor blade (pictured at right) 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 … and he emphasized that to me. I also spoke with the chief pilot on [the chopper], and he reiterated that.”
 
That wasn’t the only time that a CBP helicopter was damaged and forced down by a large rock. On June 9, 2010, in what CBP described as a “high profile incident,” an Air and Marine chopper out of McAllen, Texas (pictured at left) was forced to land after a rock thrown by narco-smugglers struck the chopper’s left Plexiglas door windshield, creating a large hole and cracks in the Plexiglas, creating a safety problem.

According to a CBP summary of the event, while on routine patrol, the Office of Air and Marine pilots observed a vehicle they decided needed “closer scrutiny.” Upon so doing, the pilots “identified several subjects transferring narcotics from the vehicle to nearby rafts.”

Then, “suddenly, the crew heard a loud pop, and observed a rock projecting from the left Plexiglas door and impacting the windshield. The pilots immediately executed precautionary measures, and landed the aircraft in a safe location.”

Conclusion

Although the dark reality on theSouthwest border revealed by the data in this report represents a potentially serious and growing threat to the men and women of CBP who work tirelessly to ensure that the southern border is secure, these threats are not because the border is unsecured.

The attacks on CBP personnel — as well as assaults on state and local border states’ law enforcement personnel — are, by most informed accounts, a reaction by increasingly desparate individuals and groups whose livelihoods depend on illegal cross-border enterprises to America’s progressive, post-9/11 border security measures .

The question is, will these assaults escalate … and, if they do, will they become deadly?

Photos courtesy US Customs and Border Protection.

Follow me on Twitter at https://twitter.com/anthonykimery 

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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