Border Patrol officials have decided there was no wrongdoing by an agent who shot a fellow agent three times after mistaking him for a robber in a dark border canyon.
Chief Dale Cozart said Tuesday that Agent Lyle Johnson will not be disciplined for shooting Agent Augustin Diaz three times with a .357 magnum revolver during the early-morning darkness of Jan. 25 when the two agents opened fire on each other.
The two agents were working in the same area but on different operations. Both were in uniform when they exchanged gunfire in Tree Canyon, a brush-covered area about two miles north of the Otay Mesa border crossing and near Brown Field.
Johnson, another Border Patrol agent and two sheriff's deputies were taking part in Operation Alliance, a combined federal, state and local law enforcement operation aimed at seizing drug smugglers.
Diaz, who is still recovering from his wounds, was rounding up illegal aliens who had just crossed the border.
Johnson told investigators from the INS Office of Professional Responsibility that he believed Diaz was a bandit who was robbing the illegal aliens, who were lying on the ground.
"Diaz was actually dealing with a group of aliens and thought that one of those aliens was a border bandit," Cozart said. "That's why he had his gun out. It was just one of those circumstances of mistaken identity."
According to Cozart, INS officials are satisfied that Johnson identified himself as an agent before the shooting and that he acted "in a responsible manner."
Diaz, with gun in hand, turned from the aliens he was arresting and faced Johnson when confronted, Cozart said. This prompted an exchange of gunfire between Johnson and Diaz, Cozart said. The other Border Patrol agent and the two deputies who were with Johnson did not fire their weapons, Cozart said.
San Diego police also investigated the shooting and said that at least nine shots were fired by the two agents. Police did not recommend that charges be made in the shooting.
"It was an instantaneous reaction," Cozart said. "You're down there in that canyon. It's dark and your perception is that there is a border bandit there with a weapon, robbing individuals. You act according to your training."
After the shooting, several critics of the Border Patrol said that the incident shows that agents frequently shoot first and ask questions later when patrolling the rugged border canyons.
However, Cozart insisted that this is not true and said that Johnson made every effort to identify himself.
"We don't believe that there was any gross negligence. But the investigation prompted us to look at certain areas to ensure that this doesn't happen again," Cozart said. "We're trying to improve our communications and come up with better guidelines so that we don't have agents with overlapping duties working in the same geographical area."
Cozart said that he is "hopeful and optimistic" that Diaz will return to work, but he did not know when.