SAN DIEGO — A U.S. Border Patrol agent patrolling a smuggling trail in the mountains east of San Diego shot and killed a suspect Tuesday morning after being struck in the head during a rock attack, federal and San Diego County authorities said.
The confrontation occurred about 6:30 a.m. on Otay Mountain, which is heavily used for illegal crossings into San Diego. Agents patrolling in SUVs and all-terrain vehicles crisscross the mountain around the clock.
The agent opened fire after being hit in the face with a rock thrown by a noncitizen who was suspected of crossing the border illegally, San Diego County Sheriff's Lt. Glenn Giannantonio said. The agent was not seriously hurt. Two other noncitizens were detained in connection with the case, authorities said.
"Fearing for his life the agent discharged his service issued weapon resulting in the death of one assailant," the Border Patrol said in a statement.
The agent has been placed on paid administrative leave pending results of the investigation by the Sheriff's Department. The identity of the alleged assailant was not released.
The agency has come under increasing scrutiny over its use-of-force policy, which permits agents to open fire on rock throwers. Suspected traffickers often throw objects to divert agents during smuggling runs. Federal officials defend their policy, saying rocks are potential lethal weapons.
Critics have questioned the circumstances in several of the 20 fatal shootings involving U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents since 2010, including some cases in which people were shot in the back.
The San Diego-Mexico border has seen a 45% decline in assaults against agents, to 73 last year from 133 in 2012, according to agency statistics. Assaults typically involve rocks or other objects, but also include physical attacks.
Times staff writer Tony Perry in San Diego contributed to this report.