An international manhunt continued yesterday for the killers of a U.S. Border Patrol agent who died Saturday when suspected drug smugglers ran him down as he tried to lay spike strips on a road about a mile north of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Agent Luis Aguilar Jr., 32, who spent his six-year Border Patrol career at the agency's Yuma, Ariz., sector, was killed when struck by the driver of a Hummer fleeing other Border Patrol agents near the Imperial Sand Dunes in California, about 20 miles west of the Arizona border.
Border Patrol officials said Agent Aguilar was struck at 9:30 a.m. as others agents were trying to stop the fleeing Hummer and a Ford F-250 pickup that crossed from Mexico into the United States. Both vehicles fled back into Mexico. No arrests have been made.
The agent was declared dead at the scene.
"Agent Aguilar's death serves as another stark reminder of the risks our front-line agents and officers face each day as we strive to secure America's borders," said U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Commissioner W. Ralph Basham, who oversees the Border Patrol.
"This despicable act will only strengthen our resolve to continue securing our borders, even in the face of increased violence," Mr. Basham said.
The FBI is leading the investigation with what Mr. Basham described as the full cooperation of other federal, state and local authorities, along with Mexican police and military.
Mexican authorities in Baja California recovered the burned remains of a Hummer and Ford pickup Sunday afternoon. Identification numbers found in the vehicles showed the Hummer was stolen in Santa Ana, Calif., and the Ford pickup was reported stolen in Calexico, Calif.
"It can't be confirmed that they are the vehicles, but from the descriptions and the time they were found, they could be the vehicles that took part" in the smuggling attempt, said Juan Francisco Chapa, an international liaison for the Baja Mexico police.
Agent Aguilar's death, the first for the Border Patrol in 2008, comes at a time when assaults on border agents continue to rise — from 384 in 2005 to 987 in 2007. In the first quarter of fiscal 2008, which began Oct. 1, there have been 300 assaults on Border Patrol agents, on a pace to reach 1,200 by the end of the year.
The rise is attributed by CBP to a greater law-enforcement presence, criminal resistance to tightening operational control along the Southwest border and turf battles between rival drug- and alien-smuggling gangs.
"Dangerous criminal groups have chosen to respond to our tougher security posture at the border with increased violence," said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. "They mistakenly believe we will give way in the face of violence. We will continue to show them how wrong they are.
"I am outraged by this tragic loss," he said. "The American public stands with the men and women of the Border Patrol, and I am deeply grateful for their heroic service."
Border Patrol officials said agents observed the Hummer and the Ford pickup crossing from Mexico about 20 miles west of Yuma. They said the vehicles were headed west on Interstate 8 — a popular smuggling route to San Diego and Los Angeles — but turned around and sped back to Mexico when they spotted the agents.
Agent Aguilar is survived by his wife, two children and a brother, Senior Border Patrol Agent Marcos Aguilar, who is assigned in the Nogales, Ariz., field office. Funeral arrangements are pending.