Violence Against Border Control Rises Sharply

Attacks on Border Patrol agents along the southwest U.S. border nearly doubled over the last year. Independent observers say the rise is the result of a buildup of law enforcement along the border and new tactics adopted by smugglers.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

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And I'm Melissa Block.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff visited the US-Mexico border this week, and afterward he said that the government would, as he put it, `gain control of our borders.' Well, that's dangerous work. The number of assaults against Border Patrol agents has nearly doubled this year. NPR's Ted Robbins has the story.

TED ROBBINS reporting:

As he often does, Border Patrol agent Miguel Jimenez is sitting in his vehicle on a ridge overlooking Mexico.

(Soundbite of bell tolling)

ROBBINS: He's so close to the border he can hear church bells in Nogales, Sonora. On a recent night at this same spot, he saw a couple of men jump over the fence from Mexico into the US, and then they saw him.

Mr. MIGUEL JIMENEZ (US Border Patrol): And at that point, they were nervous, rushing, trying to get what appeared to be bundles of narcotics off their back. And being that I was here already, they decided to just jump back over the fence.

ROBBINS: With the smugglers back in Mexico, agent Jimenez rolled his SUV down the hill to get the bundles the men had dropped. He got out, walking as close as he could to the fence made of welded airplane landing mats stuck vertically into the ground.

Mr. JIMENEZ: What I wasn't aware of is that they were actually observing me as I'm walking along the landing mat. It started raining rocks on me. I had one hit me right over the head.

ROBBINS: Miguel Jimenez survived with a bad headache and a good-sized lump on his head. The incident was one of nearly 700 assaults agents reported during the last fiscal year. That's almost double the number reported the year before. In the Tucson and San Diego sectors, agents reported being shot at 43 times. But about two-thirds of all the assaults along the border are similar to what happened to agent Jimenez, what the Border Patrol calls rockings. Officers say the intention is not necessarily to cause bodily harm, but rather to cause distraction so smugglers can get drugs or people past agents. Border Patrol spokesman Gustavo Soto.

Ms. GUSTAVO SOTO (US Border Patrol Spokesman): Their assault's main design: to get our agents away from a certain area. It's basically that they're trying to retreat, and we're not going to give ground. We're going to hold our ground.

ROBBINS: The number of assaults had actually dropped for several years until rising dramatically last year. Assaults are going up where more Border Patrol agents are being assigned. That's logical. If there are more agents, there are more to assault. Gustavo Soto says it's evidence that the buildup of US forces along the southern border is working.

Mr. SOTO: And it shows the clear frustration the smugglers are having and the impact that the agents are having with--in part of securing our national borders.

ROBBINS: But Wayne Cornelius says the US economic lure will keep people and drugs coming. Cornelius is director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California at San Diego. He says more border enforcement will just cause more violence.

Mr. WAYNE CORNELIUS (Director, Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, UC-San Diego): The most likely scenario is a continuation of this trend. And, in fact, if Congress decides to expand the border enforcement operations, or even to build a high-tech fence all along the southwestern border, that is likely to escalate the violence.

ROBBINS: As border security increases, so does the cost of getting people or drugs into the country from Mexico. And with more at stake, it's likely that people will take greater chances, including using violence, to reach their goal. Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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