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Consul Says Agents Shot 2 Mexicans From Behind

Times Staff Writer

Two Mexican citizens shot and killed by U. S. Border Patrol agents earlier this month were gunned down from behind as they were fleeing the officers and returning to Mexico, the Mexican consul general in San Diego alleged Friday. San Diego police immediately challenged his account, which differs substantially with the official version of the shooting.

“They were running back to Mexico,” Hermilo Lopez-Bassols said of the victims in a telephone interview. “They approached the officers, and, when they detected they were police, they turned back and started fleeing to Mexico, and that was the moment the shooting occurred.”

That account, which contrasts sharply with the police version of the agents opening fire when directly threatened by the men, described as suspected bandits, is based in part on the consul’s interviews with two survivors of the shootings who are now in custody in San Diego, Lopez-Bassols said.

The consul said his comments are also based on the findings of a Mexican doctor who viewed the corpses, his own examination of the bodies and his review of preliminary findings by the San Diego County coroner’s office. (The coroner’s office Friday declined to release any information on the case.)

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The Mexican Embassy in Washington plans to deliver a diplomatic note of protest over the shooting to the U. S. State Department, Lopez-Bassols said, adding that he has expressed his concern personally to Dale W. Cozart, chief Border Patrol agent in San Diego, and to San Diego Police Chief Bob Burgreen.

“The whole purpose of this is not to create a controversy,” Lopez-Bassols said, “but to clarify the facts. . . . We need a thorough investigation of the incident. Through gunfire, we are not going to solve any problems at the border.”

The controversy is the most recent to surface surrounding the Border Crime Prevention Unit, an elite task force of Border Patrol agents and San Diego police officers that patrols the border canyons, seeking to deter crime against the hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens who enter San Diego from Tijuana each year.

The unit, launched in January, 1984, after a similar unit was disbanded in 1978, has been involved in more than 2 dozen shootings that have left at least 18 people dead. Although several police officers and patrolmen have been wounded, none has been killed.

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The violence associated with the unit has led some critics to question whether it is actually adding to the border violence. But officials have defended the task force as a necessary deterrent to crime.

In the most recent case, initial police investigation has indicated that the agents were justified in firing their weapons, according to statements by Lt. Phil Jarvis, who heads the San Diego Police Department’s homicide unit, which investigates all shootings by law enforcement agencies within the city limits. However, Jarvis has stressed that the final determination will be made by the county district attorney’s office.

On Friday, Police Detective William Nulton said investigators had determined that it was “not the case” that the two men who died were fleeing as they were shot. He said the agents opened fire after being threatened by suspected bandits, at least one of whom brandished what appeared to be a long knife. Police later found three screwdrivers and a machete at the scene, Nulton said.

Nulton acknowledged that one of the two dead men was shot once in the back on his left side, as well as once in the back of his upper left arm. But that fact, he said, does not necessarily mean the victim was fleeing when he was hit.

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The other dead man was hit with a single shotgun blast, fired from within 10 feet, that hit him on top of the head, Nulton said. But Lopez-Bassols said the blast “by no means” struck on top of the head, and instead hit a bone in the back of the skull.

The third shooting victim, who survived, was shot in the chest and in the buttocks, Nulton said. A fourth man was not hit by gunfire.

Asked about the bullets’ location, Nulton noted that it was dark and that the men might have been “ducking and dodging” or taking other evasive moves when they were hit. Their exact motions, he said, “may never be known.”

The shootings took place about 10:40 p.m. Jan. 4, near a levee that parallels the border, about three-quarters of a mile west of the San Ysidro Port of Entry, police said. The officers discharged two shotgun rounds and six pistol rounds, police said.

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The three Border Patrol agents, all of whom fired their weapons, were identified as John Roberts, Joel Saldana and Michael Moran. Two San Diego police officers present did not discharge their weapons, police said.

Police identified one of the dead men as Sabino Silva Chavez, 24, of Ensenada.

Marco Lopez, a San Diego attorney, identified the other man as Martin Lopez, 21, of Tijuana. The attorney said the victim was a guide who was leading other undocumented migrants across the border.


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