Two U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents were injured and a third was killed during an early Thursday morning high seas shootout with suspected smugglers 14 miles off Puerto Rico’s southwest coast.
“Everyone is dismayed,” Jeffrey Quinones, a CBP spokesman in Puerto Rico told a Miami Herald reporter, “You go out to do your job and did not have the prospect of this happening.”
Quinones said the agents, who belong to the Air and Marine Operations unit – which patrols the oceans for drug and weapons trafficking and illegal migrant voyages – were on a routine boat patrol Thursday morning when they approached a suspect vessel.
Once they neared it, the two passengers opened fire, he said. Agents returned fire, he said, killing one of them on the boat and injuring the other.
“When the shooting stopped, the agents were able to place one of the individuals who was on the boat under arrest,” he said.
Quinones said no contraband was found on board. But after the shootout, the agency came across another boat with contraband and weapons.
“It seems the goal could have been to do a transfer in the water,” he said.
Authorities detained the two passengers on the second boat, who are both U.S. citizens.
The CBP did not release the names of the three agents. The agency was in the process of notifying the family of the deceased and offering them support.
There also were no immediate details on the background of the two suspected smugglers on the first boat. The agency’s acting deputy commissioner, who confirmed Thursday afternoon that one of his agents had been killed, said mourning bands were handed out and flags would be flown at half-staff.
“The agents suffered various gunshot injuries as a result and were airlifted by CBP and the Coast Guard to the Puerto Rico Trauma Center,” said Acting CBA Commissioner Troy A. Miller.
The Coast Guard retrieved the injured agents from the scene. One of them, who was badly injured, died in a Mayaguez hospital. The other two were airlifted to the island’s main public hospital in San Juan. Quinones said they were in delicate but stable condition for now.
Lymari Cruz Rubio, the Federal Bureau of Investigations spokesperson in San Juan, told the Miami Herald that the agency had jurisdiction in the case because it involved the assault of federal officers.
The FBI’s evidence response team was processing the scene and the agency was coordinating with local state and federal agencies in the investigation’s preliminary stages. However, she declined to offer more details.
“We exhort citizens to communicate with us at (787) 987-6500 for any details” on the case she said, giving the number to the agency offices on the island.
A Homeland Security Investigations source confirmed that its agents in San Juan were investigating the smuggling part of the crime.
Customs and Border Protection in Puerto Rico, including its Air and Marine Operations branch, patrol the waters near the Caribbean territory for the trafficking of narcotics and weapons as well as undocumented immigrants trying to enter the United States.
The Mona Passage, which sits between Puerto Rico and Hispaniola, is a smuggling hot spot. The Miami Herald joined AMO on a routine flight over the Mona Passage in June, where agents used the naked eye as well as radar technology to spot suspicious boats thousands of feet below.
The federal agency has made two notable drug seizures recently. On the day before the shootout, U.S. Border Patrol agents came across 198 pounds of cocaine and the body of a man near a makeshift boat on the beaches of the northwestern coastal town of Quebradillas. The week prior, Air and Marine Operations Agents had intercepted a boat near tiny, uninhabited Desecheo Island with two Dominican Republic nationals carrying 851 pounds of cocaine. They were estimated to be worth around $7.17 million.
“It is a methodic and sustained effort to interdict vessels that attempt to bring contraband into our shores,” said Director of the Caribbean Air and Marine Branch Augusto Reyes at the time, “AMO agents use their maritime domain awareness to detect and stop them.”
Only last month, CBP training instructor Jorge Arias, 35, was killed after being accidentally shot by another agent during a training exercise at a West Miami-Dade gun range.
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