The Border Patrol agent who died Sunday in west Texas was ambushed by migrants who beat him in the head with rocks, union officials said Monday.
Federal investigators have not described the incident in detail or characterized the nature of the attack, but on Monday night the FBI said that "both agents sustained traumatic head injuries, along with other miscellaneous physical injuries such as broken bones."
The union representing Border Patrol agents said earlier Monday that Agent Rogelio Martinez, 36, and his partner were responding to reports of suspicious activity in the Big Bend area when attacked. Martinez died at a hospital and his partner, whose name was not released, was in serious condition.
"What we know is that Border Patrol Agent Rogelio Martinez appears to have been ambushed by a group of illegal aliens whom he was tracking. Our agents' reports from the ground say that he was struck in the head multiple times with a rock or rocks," said Brandon Judd, a Border Patrol agent and president of the San Diego-based National Border Patrol Council union that represents 16,000 agents.
"The other agent arrived on scene a short time later and was also ambushed and struck in the head with what is believed to have been a rock or rocks," Judd said. "These disgusting acts and complete disregard for human life need to stop immediately. Family members of slain Agent Martinez will never get to see him come home again all because we have failed to secure our borders from such criminals."
In its statement Monday night, the FBI said Border Patrol agents from the Van Horn station discovered Martinez and the other agent in a culvert adjacent Interstate 10, about 12 miles east of Van Horn, about 11:20 p.m. Saturday.
The agents were taken to a hospital in Van Horn, a town of about 2,000 people, and then airlifted to a hospital in El Paso because of the severity of their injuries. Martinez died early Sunday.
At least 38 Border Patrol agents have died on and off duty since late 2003, according to records the agency posted online. But fatal on-duty attacks are rare for the federal force of more than 22,000 nationwide; the online list includes only a handful.
Among the most high-profile killings of a Border Patrol agent in recent years was the 2010 murder of Arizona Agent Brian Terry, a case that became a rallying cry for those seeking stepped-up border security, something that Donald Trump promised during the 2016 campaign to address as president.
Terry, 40, a former Marine, was fatally shot when his tactical team attempted to arrest a group of suspects near Nogales. Last April, a suspect was arrested in Mexico and charged in connection with the shooting.
Other on-duty attacks include: Agent Nicholas Ivie, 30, shot and killed on duty Oct. 2, 2012, while responding to a sensor activation in a remote area near Bisbee, Ariz.; Agent Robert Rosas, 30, shot and killed by unidentified assailants while on patrol in a remote border area near Campo, Calif., in 2009; and Agent Luis Aguilar, 31, killed on duty near Yuma, Ariz., after a smuggler he was pursuing swerved into his car in 2008.
Some attacks on agents have been captured using video surveillance. But there did not initially appear to be video footage of the latest attack on Martinez and his partner, according to Douglas Mosier, a Border Patrol spokesman in El Paso.
Martinez's family was notified of his death, but officials have yet to tell them how he died, according to his father, Jose Martinez.
"I want them to investigate well, to tell me clearly what happened and to find the ones who did it and punish them," said Jose Martinez, 53, an industrial mechanic in El Paso.
He said the other agent who was hit in the head during the attack, a young man, suffered internal bleeding and still can't talk.
Martinez, an El Paso native, had been a border agent since August 2013. He graduated in 2007 from the University of Texas at El Paso, where he studied graphic design, his father said. Martinez married, bought a home and had an 11-year-old son.
"He loved his country and he wanted to serve to protect it from terrorists," his father said. "He loved his career."
Martinez said he was concerned about his son's safety, especially after he started managing the night shift earlier this year
"I told him, 'Son, be careful.' But he said, 'No, I like it.' I was worried about him," Martinez said.
The FBI was investigating Martinez's death with the Texas Rangers and local agencies along Interstate 10 in Van Horn, about 110 miles southeast of El Paso, said El Paso FBI spokeswoman Jeanette Harper. Investigators plan to hold a briefing in El Paso on Tuesday, Mosier said.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, while announcing a $20,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible, said: "We owe a great deal of gratitude to the brave men and women of the United States Border Patrol who serve every day to protect our homeland."
Border Patrol agents have complained in recent years about being assaulted on the job, and have advocated for more personnel so that they can patrol in pairs, which is considered safer, according to Chris Cabrera, an agent and union local president in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, which had seen the most migrant traffic of any area of the border in recent years.
Spotty radio communications can also make it difficult for agents to summon backup even in more urban areas, Cabrera said, but it wasn't clear if that was a factor in this case, or if the incident would lead authorities in Washington to add resources along the southern border: For instance, the agency had studied the feasibility of providing agents with body cameras.
Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke released a statement saying the agency was still investigating Monday "to determine the cause of this tragic event."
After Martinez's death was announced, President Trump tweeted: "Border Patrol Officer killed at Southern Border, another badly hurt. We will seek out and bring to justice those responsible. We will, and must, build the Wall!"
Trump's comments on the wall were echoed Monday in a statement by U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.
"Sadly, too many Border Patrol agents have lost their lives in the line of duty. We must speed the implementation of common sense measures essential to protecting our homeland. That is why I have repeatedly called for new technology and physical barriers, including a wall, along with additional personnel to strengthen the security of our southern border," he said.
U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, an El Paso Democrat who has opposed a border wall and is campaigning to unseat Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, requested a briefing from Homeland Security about the attack and was expected to meet with officials Monday.
"These officers, their department are cornerstones of our community — the largest binational one in the country," O'Rourke said in a statement, promising, "…we will work with law enforcement to pursue justice."
Border Patrol records show that the remote Big Bend sector — which includes the more than 800,000-acre national park of the same name — accounted for about 1% of the more than 61,000 apprehensions its agents made along the Southwest border between October 2016 and May 2017. The region's mountains and the Rio Grande make it a difficult area for people to cross into the United States from Mexico.
Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the conservative Washington, D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies, has toured that part of the border and described it as a sparsely populated expanse of pecan ranches and farms. Highways and roads run close to the border and shallow stretches of the Rio Grande with sporadic fencing, she said.
"It's traditionally been drug smuggling more than people smuggling, but the cartels have control of the border there — they've literally taken over some of the towns on the south side," Vaughan said. "It does lend some urgency to the president's plan to boost border security not only with physical barriers and a wall where it's appropriate, but also with personnel and other infrastructure, technology that they need."
Times staff writer Noah Bierman in Washington contributed to this report.
9:15 p.m.: The story was updated with comments from the FBI.
5:10 p.m.: The story was updated with a comment from Rep. Michael McCaul.