A U.S. Border Patrol agent shot and wounded a man as agents clashed with a group of rock-throwing assailants, marking the latest confrontation along a violent stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border, authorities said Wednesday.
Edgar Israel Ortega Chavez was shot Tuesday night in his left buttocks and was in stable condition, according to a spokesman for Hospital General in Tijuana who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the matter.
Ortega, 22, was found by Mexican authorities on a dirt bank above the spot where the border crosses the dry, concrete-lined Tijuana River basin, Tijuana police said in a news release.
San Diego police said the shooter was a 10-year Border Patrol veteran but did not release his name.
'Of great concern'
The Border Patrol said the agent feared getting struck by a rock, but the shooting drew swift criticism from Mexican authorities.
"This incident is of great concern to the government of Mexico," said Remedios Gomez Arnau, the consul general in San Diego. "Under no circumstances would it be justified to shoot lethal or non-lethal objects to the Mexican side of the border."
The shooting occurred in an area where the U.S. government's border fence parts from the legal boundary, leaving the border marked only by a yellow stripe painted across the concrete-lined riverbed.
There were conflicting accounts about what happened.
People who said they witnessed the shooting told The Associated Press that more than a dozen people gathered on Mexican soil to plan an illegal crossing to the U.S., and threw rocks to distract agents. They said Border Patrol agents tried to disperse the crowd with pepper spray bullets.
Jose Maria Martinez, who was with the group, said one agent exchanged his pepper ball launcher for a rifle. The agent then fired three shots from a concrete post that marks the official border, Martinez said.
"'You want a fight? You want a war? Let's do it,'" Martinez, 52, quoted the agent as saying. "And pow! He got him right away."
A rock 'is a deadly weapon'
A Border Patrol spokesman, Jason Rodgers, declined to comment on Martinez's allegation and said the investigation was ongoing. He stressed that agents are well-trained and questioned the credibility of the Mexican witnesses, many of whom were trying to get into the country illegally.
Another Border Patrol spokesman, Daryl Reed, said the agent fired his gun on U.S. soil after seeing Ortega wielding a softball-sized rock on Mexican soil. He said the group hurled rocks at agents from inside the U.S., but returned to Mexico after the Border Patrol used tear gas and pepper projectiles.
"This agent thought his life was in danger or that his fellow agents' lives were in danger, so he responded," Reed said. "(A rock) is a deadly weapon."
San Diego police Lt. Terry McManus said the confrontation began when the group hurled rocks and one person failed in an attempt to climb over a fence just inside the U.S.
The shooting is the latest confrontation near the bustling San Ysidro crossing.
Border Patrol agents routinely get rocks, bottles and bricks thrown at them from people in Tijuana hoping to distract the agents long enough to jump the fence.
The Border Patrol began firing tear gas and high-impact pepper balls into Mexico last year in response to what it said was an alarming increase in attacks. San Diego-area agents have been attacked more than 330 times since October, compared with 254 times for the previous 12-month period, according to Reed.