SAN DIEGO – A U.S. Border Patrol agent was fatally shot while pursuing a group of illegal immigrants in a remote valley about 60 miles east of San Diego, triggering a manhunt by federal, state and Mexican authorities, U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials said Friday.
Robert Rosas, a three-year agency veteran, was responding to an incursion Thursday night just inside the steel border fence when one or more assailants opened fire, authorities said. He died at the scene.
Rosas, a 30-year-old father of two, was the first border agent to be shot and killed in the line of duty in nearly a decade, officials said.
“It was a cowardly act against an agent trying to protect this country,” said Rick Barlow, the acting chief of the agency’s San Diego sector, where flags flew at half-staff outside headquarters in Chula Vista.
U.S. officials said they are working closely with their counterparts in Mexico. On Friday afternoon, the Mexican military sent about a dozen vehicles to secure the sparsely populated area south of the border fence. Mexican federal police were also seen searching the boulder-strewn area.
The attack occurred near the rural town of Campo in eastern San Diego County. The hilly, scrub-covered terrain dotted with ranches and winding, two-lane roads has long been a favored spot for smugglers.
Authorities said the attackers could have been smugglers or bandits who prey on illegal immigrants. There were signs of a struggle, and one or more suspects may have been injured, investigators said. Two sources with knowledge of the investigation said K-9 units tracked a blood trail to the border. The suspects took Rosas’ weapon and radio, according to the sources.
The attack occurred during a period of relative tranquillity on the San Diego County-Mexico border. Apprehensions of illegal immigrants and assaults against agents are down significantly from last year.
But agents have made numerous drug seizures in the Campo area in recent weeks, leading some observers to speculate that frustrated smugglers are retaliating.
In late June, gunshots fired across the border near Campo shattered the rear windshield of a maintenance truck, nearly hitting a contract worker.
U.S. authorities said it’s too soon say whether smugglers are escalating their tactics.
The FBI announced a $100,000 reward for information leading to the capture of the suspects.