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U.S., Mexico Border Crossing Closed After Shots Fired

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The nation's busiest border crossing was closed to northbound vehicle traffic for hours Tuesday after federal agents fired shots to stop three vans suspected of smuggling illegal immigrants from Mexico. The 74 people crammed into the vans were taken into federal custody.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. Renee Montagne is away this week.

Three vans approached a border crossing between the United States and Mexico last night. They were heading into the U.S. near San Diego. More than 70 illegal immigrants were packed inside those vans, and what happened next brought all traffic to a halt at the world's busiest border crossing on land. NPR's Carrie Kahn has been reporting on the shooting that took place as the vans allegedly tried to storm the border.

Carrie, good morning.

CARRIE KAHN: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Some people initially described this as a shootout between smugglers and U.S. border agents, but what are you learning as time has gone on here?

KAHN: What happened was, as you described, three full-sized vans that police have told me usually fit about 11 in each van and they were crammed with 74 illegal immigrants, pulled up one behind the other at the San Ysidro port of entry there, between Tijuana and San Diego. And the first driver handed his driver's license to the U.S. agent. And as the agent stepped inside the booth to check his driver's license they just hit the gas and the three of them tried to get through the checkpoint there.

And as you come out of the gates - there are tens of thousands of cars that go through it every single day. And as they tried to get through there was just so much traffic and the vans tried to back up, tried to get around all these cars, and they bore down on three agents who pulled their guns and started firing at the vans.

INSKEEP: What happened when the border agents opened fire?

KAHN: At first we had heard that there had been a gun battle and that there had been shots fired from the vans, but San Diego police detectives tell me that there were no shots fired from these vans. But three of the passengers inside the vans were injured. And then the lead van, as it was trying to get through this traffic, struck a passenger car and another civilian was injured.

INSKEEP: And everybody onboard the vans is now in custody I trust?

KAHN: Yes. There's 74 illegal immigrants in those three vans, and they were all taken into custody.

INSKEEP: Carrie Kahn, I know this is a border crossing that you have crossed many times over the years. Is it unusual to have this kind of violence there?

KAHN: Well, you know, about 10 years ago there was a lot of this port running happening. And then the customs and U.S. agents put in all these security measures in there. But recently there has been an escalation in violence along the border.

And I was talking with Lauren Mack last night, and she's the San Diego spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and she was shocked by the smuggling attempt. She said it's the most brazen attempt that she's seen in years. And it just really speaks to how tough the U.S. enforcement along the border has become.

Ms. LAUREN MACK (Spokeswoman, Immigration and Customs Enforcement): The border is much more difficult. It's much riskier to smuggle. We've seen an increase in tunneling activity and we've seen an increase in very dangerous smuggling tactics used by boat in the local waterway.

KAHN: Mack says there has been an increase in all sorts of tactics lately to get across the border.

INSKEEP: And granting that the border agents are under increasing pressure then, is there anybody questioning whether they were wise to open fire when it seems with all the security measures and the traffic jam the vans weren't going to get across the border and when there were plenty of innocent people around who could be hit in that giant crowd?

KAHN: I think those are all questions that are definitely going to be asked during the investigation. I did speak to a lead detective with the San Diego Police Department. And the way he described it, were that the three vans were coming directly at the agents. And it sounded like they felt that their life was threatened.

You know, this is the third shooting in the last two months in the San Diego area involving federal agents. At the end of July a border patrol agent was shot and killed along an isolated stretch near San Diego. And just last week a border patrol agent was shot and injured the driver of a pickup truck that was trying to run him over in the Tijuana River Valley. So violence has escalated greatly in this area of the border.

INSKEEP: NPR's Carrie Kahn.

Thanks very much.

KAHN: You're welcome.

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