- The Washington Times - Friday, November 24, 2000

A drug smuggler convicted in Arizona in the murder of a U.S. Border Patrol agent faces life in prison rather than the death penalty at his January sentencing as part of a deal with Mexico to spare his life in exchange for his extradition to this country to stand trial.

Bernardo Velarde Lopez, 28, was convicted Tuesday by a federal jury in Tucson in the June 1998 killing of Border Patrol Agent Alexander Kirpnick, gunned down near Nogales, Ariz., while he and his partner sought to arrest four men hauling marijuana into this country.

Agent Kirpnick, 27, who immigrated to the United States from the Soviet Union in 1988, died from a gunshot wound to the head. He and his partner, Agent Steven Heiden, had responded to investigate "hits" from sensors hidden inside Potrero Canyon, just west of Nogales, a favorite route for drug smugglers.

Velarde was found guilty in the murder of a federal agent and possession of a firearm during a drug-trafficking crime, resulting in death, conspiracy and drug charges.

The United States agreed with Mexican authorities not to seek the death penalty in exchange for Velarde's extradition to this country to stand trial. Facing a life sentence without the possibility of parole, Velarde will be sentenced Jan. 25 before U.S. District Judge John Roll in Tucson.

Federal prosecutors said Velarde, of Nogales, Mexico, and three other men were attempting to smuggle 110 pounds of marijuana over the border when they were confronted by Agents Kirpnick and Heiden. Agent Kirpnick was shot as he disappeared behind some brush while attempting to arrest Velarde, prosecutors said.

The agent was rushed to a Tucson hospital, where he died four hours later.

After the shooting, all four suspects fled into the desert, although Agent Heiden located Manuel Gamez as he sought to return on foot to Mexico. Gamez later was convicted on charges of marijuana smuggling and sentenced to 12 years in prison. He identified Velarde as the shooter.

Velarde was arrested in Nogales by Mexican police and extradited to the United States to face trial in Agent Kirpnick's death five months later.

Agent Kirpnick's June 3, 1998, death was followed five weeks later by the murder of Border Patrol Agents Susan Lynn Rodriguez, 28, and Ricardo Guillermo Salinas, 24. They were killed during a gunfight in a cornfield near San Benito, Texas, about 20 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border.

The two agents had responded to a call for assistance to search for a murder suspect and died when the suspect stepped out of the field and fired numerous shots at them with an AK-47 semiautomatic rifle.

Agent Rodriguez, the daughter of retired El Paso Deputy Border Patrol Chief Steve Williams, was the first female Border Patrol agent killed in the line of duty. The suspected gunman, Ernest Moore, 25, was wounded during the Texas shootout and died 10 hours later at a hospital. Police said Moore was the son of a Harlingen, Texas, police detective.

The deaths of Agents Kirpnick, Rodriguez and Salinas prompted the Justice Department to review the Border Patrol's operational policies, while insisting that the agency remain aggressive in its enforcement efforts. The review was led by Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., and proposed ways to better protect the agents who work along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border.

"We still plan to be aggressive in our enforcement of the immigration laws," Mr. Holder said at the time. "We will not back down. We are determined to do the job that the American people expect us to do on the border with regard to illegal immigration and also the flow of drugs."

Part of the Holder plan included the recruitment of 1,000 new Border Patrol agents, most of whom have been and will be assigned to the U.S.-Mexico border. The recruitment effort continues.

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