WASHINGTON — Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Tuesday that the United States and Mexico are working aggressively to track the killers of a 32-year-old Border Patrol agent who was killed over the weekend in what Chertoff described as an extensive surge in violence against federal agents along the Southwest border.
"This is outrageous, killing a Border Patrol agent," Chertoff said in a joint interview with three news organizations, including McClatchy. "We're committed to bringing the people who did this to justice."
Luis Aguilar, a father of two, was killed Saturday when he was struck by a vehicle speeding through the Imperial San Dunes Recreation Area near Andrade, Calif. Aguilar was assigned to the Yuma Border Patrol Station, just across the state line in Arizona. Chertoff said the agent apparently was "killed deliberately" when he tried to stop the vehicle with a device that deflates tires.
Chertoff was joined by high-ranking officials of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, as they mourned the death of the first agent killed in the line of duty since 1998. All wore gold badges affixed with black tape.
Chertoff said that Border Patrol agents are virtually under siege by violent drug cartels retaliating against toughened enforcement that's made it harder to ferry drugs into the United States. Assaults on Border Patrol agents have increased 44 percent from October through December, compared with the same period a year ago.
"When you turn the screws on them they start to fight more viciously to protect their dwindling business," Chertoff said. But he added: "Anybody who thinks they're going to back us down — whether it's with rocks or guns or vehicles — is going to find out that we don't back down."
Chertoff blamed the escalating assaults on three factors: an increased presence of law enforcement on the border, turf battles among criminal cartels and criminal resistance to the law enforcement crackdown.
"Is this violence a deliberate effort to target the Border Patrol? The answer to that is yes," Chertoff said.
Chertoff and Deputy Border Patrol Chief Ron Colburn said agents are assaulted with an arsenal of weaponry that includes bottles, knives, bats, ball bearings, steel pipes, cinder blocks, slingshots and vehicles.
The number of violent incidents has increased by 31 percent between fiscal 2006 and 2007, from 752 incidents to 987, according to the DHS. The most troublesome area is the El Centro sector near the middle of California's southern border, which recorded a 688 percent increase during the 2006-07 period. The area is one of the nation's leading smuggling corridors.
Chertoff restated the department's efforts to erect 670 miles of fencing along the Southwest border by the end of the year, despite fierce opposition from landowners and political officials in Texas. The DHS has started court action to begin acquiring land for the project, including 233 acres from the small border city of Eagle Pass, Texas.
"I'm going to use every tool available, including the courts, to give the Border Patrol the support they need," he said.