A U.S. Border Patrol agent was killed early Tuesday when he fell from a ridge as he chased illegal border-crossers on foot in a semirural area southeast of the city.
Agent Luis Santiago, 30, died at the scene after falling about 120 feet onto the cement floor of the Otay Reservoir, a dam about five miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. The incident occurred about 12:30 a.m. as Santiago and several other agents were running after a group of immigrants in the darkness of the hills near the reservoir.
"So far, it looks like an accidental fall," said Bryant Brazley, a Border Patrol spokesman. "It's just very unfortunate. It's a very dangerous job."
Santiago, who had been with the agency 10 months, became the first Border Patrol agent to die in the line of duty since 1989 and the first to die in the San Diego sector since 1974, Brazley said.
The death was a reminder of the hazards of the job--particularly the foot and vehicle chases that account for most deaths and injuries to border agents--at a time when a buildup in border defenses coincides with a Mexican economic crisis that has spurred illegal immigration.
The incident occurred in the terrain patrolled by the Brown Field station, which has become the new front for illegal crossing because of Operation Gatekeeper, a federal effort to fortify urban border areas. Arrests and chases have increased in the wooded trails around the reservoir, where illegal crossers attempt to elude agents by hiking through sparsely populated land to rendezvous with smugglers in vehicles.
"Since the movement of traffic to the east, that is a heavier crossing area," Brazley said.
The smuggler and immigrants who were fleeing the agents are being held while the San Diego County Sheriff's Department and Border Patrol investigate the death, authorities said.
Santiago was single. His body will be flown to his native Puerto Rico for burial at his family's request.