SAN DIEGO — U.S. Border Patrol agents confronting more than 100 suspected illegal border crossers were pelted by rocks and bottles during a tense standoff Sunday afternoon along the U.S.-Mexico border, federal authorities said.
Nobody was seriously injured and it was unclear whether the crowd was trying to enter the U.S. illegally or hold a demonstration. One Tijuana newspaper reported that a crew working on a feature film may have orchestrated the incident. Whatever the case, the sight of the large group of people surging beyond the border within a few blocks of San Diego homes rattled agents' nerves.
Agents said the incident harked to the days in the 1990s when migrants would run across the border en masse, in so-called banzai runs that would overwhelm agents. As the crowd Sunday crossed the Tijuana River into California, more than one dozen agents responded to the border fence atop the levee and deployed pepper spray to hold them back, triggering the melee.
According to video footage of the skirmish obtained by the Mexican media outlet Milenio, the crowd surged forward, yelling "Viva [Pancho] Villa." Among the throng of mostly young men were women and children. Agents could be seen converging in all-terrain vehicles, a helicopter and jeeps. People stung by the pepper spray retreated, rubbing their eyes. Many yelled expletives.
Several agents were hit in the arms and legs with rocks and one agent was hit in the head with a filled water bottle, officials said. The crowd eventually dispersed.
"It was extremely unusual," said Agent Timothy Hamill, a Border Patrol spokesman. "It was dangerous, very dangerous."
Demonstrations along the border are not uncommon and protesters have at times briefly crossed the border in symbolic displays of defiance. Deportees from the U.S. have staged protests, and some observers said the heated skirmish may reflect growing desperation in the large community of impoverished deportees living in Tijuana.
But according to the Tijuana newspaper, El Mexicano, the migrants may have been unwitting participants in a feature film. Recruited at a downtown soup kitchen, the migrants were reportedly told to show up at the border Sunday afternoon so they could reunite with their families in the U.S. The migrants were not told that the attempted crossing would be a scene in a film, according to the El Mexicano report.
The prospect that a film crew exploited the migrants concerned some immigrant advocates.
"We don't condone this type of action. It is irresponsible and places people in harm's way," said Pedro Rios, director of the San Diego office of the American Friends Service Committee.
The confrontation Sunday occurred along one of the most heavily fortified spots on the border just west of the San Ysidro port of entry. There were no arrests.
"While attacks on Border Patrol agents are not uncommon, the agents showed great restraint when faced with the dangers of this unusually large group," said Paul Beeson, the chief patrol agent for the agency's San Diego sector.