Four Mexican soldiers arrested for entering U.S. territory in pursuit of smugglers crossed the border accidentally and did not mean to violate American sovereignty, a Mexican diplomat said Monday.
"It's not an invasion, of course," said Luis Morones, Mexico's deputy counsel general in San Diego.
Both Morones and U.S. Border Patrol officials said they expected that the four members of the Mexican naval infantry would be released soon and allowed to return to Mexico.
"We have no desire to embarrass anyone in this incident. We are not trying to embarrass Mexico. We are just trying to gather all the facts," Border Patrol spokesman Mike Nicley said. "We're trying to expedite their return to Mexico, and we will do so at the appropriate time."
Nicley said, however, that the four soldiers admitted during questioning that they were aware they had crossed into the United States. Nicley declined to release further details about the soldiers' entry, saying the investigation was still in an "embryonic stage."
Dale Cozart, chief agent in the Border Patrol's San Diego sector, said the four men were arrested Sunday night after being spotted on a beach near Imperial Beach questioning picnickers.
U.S. authorities hope to locate the picnickers to find out what happened during the encounter.
The soldiers, whose names were not released, told Border Patrol officials that they crossed the border Sunday night in pursuit of drug or weapons smugglers.
The crossing was made without any notification to U.S. authorities, who said they were concerned about possible violation of U.S. sovereignty.
State Department officials and the Mexican Consulate in San Diego and Mexican military officials were notified of the arrests by the Border Patrol.
"I'm not sure there will be a (diplomatic) protest, but all of the interested parties are on board in trying to resolve this very serious situation," Cozart said.
The incident occurred about 1 1/2 miles inside U.S. territory, near Border Field State Park, Cozart said.
"The international line is marked clearly. It was not just an inadvertent entry," he said.
The men, who were armed with military-issue automatic rifles, were being held solely for investigation of immigration violations, Cozart said.
"It's a very serious thing to be in the United States illegally and to be in possession of an automatic weapon," he said.
U.S. authorities described the soldiers as being equivalent in rank to privates.
The crew of a Border Patrol helicopter spotted the four talking to a group of 10 to 15 people on the beach. When the helicopter's spotlight was aimed on the area, the picnickers scattered, authorities said.
The four Mexicans headed south toward the border but were intercepted by Border Patrol agents and San Diego County sheriff's deputies. They were arrested without incident and taken to the Border Patrol's San Ysidro station for questioning.
"They stated again that they were trying to take into custody two individuals that were supposedly smuggling either drugs or weapons. That is the story they are sticking with," Cozart said.
In a similar 1986 incident in New Mexico, Border Patrol agents arrested seven Mexican judicial police agents who said they had accidentally strayed less than a mile into New Mexico while on an anti-drug-smuggling assignment.