Manhunt underway for suspects in fatal Border Patrol shooting in Arizona
WASHINGTON -- Federal and state authorities have launched a widespread manhunt along a remote part of the U.S.-Mexico border for three to four suspects in a Tuesday morning shooting that left one Border Patrol agent dead and another wounded.
Dozens of investigators in helicopters and on horseback were searching an area as large as 20 miles for the suspects who allegedly opened fire on the agents when they approached to check on a tripped ground sensor.
"It was basically an ambush,'' said Cochise County Sheriff's Department Commander Marc Denney, whose agency is assisting the FBI in the search and investigation.
Denney said no weapons have been recovered. It was also unclear whether the suspects were involved in human smuggling or drug trafficking through a rocky corridor, about five miles from the Mexican border.
Denney said it was possible the suspects fled into Mexico following the shooting.
"They had a little bit of a jump on us,'' he said. "It is very rocky terrain. We're hoping that they hunkered down somewhere close by so that we have an opportunity to find them.''
The shooting occurred shortly before 2 a.m., when three agents on horseback were dispatched to an area near Naco after the ground sensor had been activated, said George McCubbin, president of the National Border Patrol Council an association of 17,000 agents and staffers.
McCubbin said one of the agents was killed, another wounded in the ankle and buttocks and third escaped without injury. The wounded agent, McCubbin said, was recovering at a local hospital.The agents were not identified, but McCubbin said they were assigned to the Border Patrol station re-named just two weeks ago in honor of Agent Brian Terry.
Terry was slain in the same general area in December 2010, an incident that triggered congressional and Justice Department inquiries into a botched gun trafficking operation which allowed 2,000 firearms to fall into the hands of Mexican drug cartel enforcers and other criminals. Two guns from that operation, known as Fast and Furious, were found at the scene of Terry's murder. But the weapon used to kill Terry has not yet been identified.
McCubbin said early reports of Tuesday's incident did not indicate that weapons were recovered or that suspects had been arrested.
"Unless guns are recovered, any suggestion that this incident is somehow linked to Fast and Furious is total speculation,'' McCubbin said. "But being that this occurred in the same general area brings back a lot of sad memories.''
The Brian Terry Station, formerly called the Naco Station, is located in Bisbee, in southeast Arizona about 210 miles from Phoenix.
None of the agents was immediately identified pending notification of relatives. The wounded agent was airlifted to a hospital, according to Crystal Amarillas, a spokeswoman for the Tucson Sector Border Patrol.
Tuesday's shootings came two weeks after the release of a federal inquiry into Fast and Furious, an inquiry prompted by Terry's 2010 murder.
As recently as last month, federal investigators expressed deep concern that 1,300 of the 2,000 weapons— many of them Ak-47 assault rifles — had not been recovered.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who helped launch the investigation into the flawed gun trafficking operation, said there is "no way to know at this point how the agent was killed'' Tuesday.
"But because of Operation Fast and Furious, we'll wonder for years if the guns used in any killing along the border were part of an ill-advised gunwalking strategy sanctioned by the federal government. It's a sad commentary."
Terry was the last Border Patrol agent killed by gunfire, but four others have died since then in traffic accidents, showing how treacherous the job and the terrain can be.
Agents Eduardo Rojas and Hector Clark were killed in May 2011, when they were tracking a group of illegal immigrants and their vehicle was struck by a freight train near Gila Bend, Ariz., according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, a web site that tracks law enforcement deaths around the country.
Another agent was killed in a crash in July while patrolling near the border on an all-terrain vehicle near Fort Hancock, Texas, according to Officer Down website. A fourth was killed in July while assisting a disabled motorist on U.S. 90 near Cline, Texas.
Contributing: Alan Gomez; Cassondra Strande, who writes for The Arizona Republic