U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry was in the desert canyons of southeastern Arizona on Tuesday hunting down bajadores, or bandits, who lurk in the shadows and prey on the illegal border-crossers.
Terry, 40, was shot and killed while he and other agents attempted to arrest a group of suspects reportedly armed with AK-47s near Rio Rico, Arizona -- about 10 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, law enforcement officials report.
Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada told New Times that the canyons in that area hot spots for drug- and human-smugglers. It isn't uncommon for specially-trained agents to patrol that high-risk area.
"They are proactive in a lot of ways," Estrada says of Border Patrol agents. "They're not just dealing with people who are coming across illegally. They are protecting people who are prone to being victimized by bajadores. They [the agents] have been shot at, some have been injured and assaulted. It's a risky job."
Border Patrol Agent Mario Escalante, a spokesman for the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, said the FBI is heading up the investigation with help from the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office. Four suspects have been arrested, but a fifth one remains on the run.
Escalante said that Terry's death was a tragic reminder of the dangers agents face.
"We're saddened by this incident," he said. "But we will continue to support our mission and protect our nation's borders."
CBP Commissioner Alan Bersin said that the agency's "thoughts and prayers are with the Terry family for their tragic loss."
"Our commitment to Agent Terry and his family is that we will do everything possible to bring to justice those responsible for this despicable act," he said in a statement on CBP.gov.
An Officer Down website that honors fallen law enforcement officers notes that Terry and other agents exchanged gunfire with the suspects. Terry was reportedly struck in the back, and died at a local hospital on Wednesday morning.
The ruthless desert pirates the agents were pursuing are in the business of robbing and assaulting illegal immigrants and anyone they encounter in the desert. New Times detailed some of the atrocities for which bajadores are responsible in "Seized: Inside the Brutal World of America's Kidnapping Capital," August 12-18.
If initial police reports are accurate, Terry wasn't gunned down by the immigrants who travel the same dangerous paths as Border Patrol agents in search work north of the border, but by violent criminals who set out each day to profit from the misery of others.
Predictably, the murder of Agent Terry, a former U.S. Marine and nearly four year veteran of U.S. Border Patrol, has spiked public outrage at the immigrants who sneak across the border and the lawmakers too busy playing politics to craft effective immigration reform.
Terry's death also jars to mind the murder of Rob Krentz, a southern Arizona rancher who was also gunned down in the desert. Law enforcement officials have speculated that drug smugglers are responsible for Krentz's still unsolved murder.
Some of that anger has been directed at New Times over this week's cover story, "Culture of Cruelty," which highlights abuses of illegal immigrants at the hands of Border Patrol agents.
Some commentators and critics point to the violence on the border, at Agent Terry's death, as some sort of justification for the abuse that some illegal immigrants endure while they are in Border Patrol custody.
"Typical New Times. The very day that a Border Patrol agent is shot and killed in Arizona, an article condemning the Border Patrol and its agents is released," one blogger posts. "Interesting timing on the part of the Phoenix New Times."
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No conspiracy, folks. The story had already been slated to run this week. The fact is that the universe doesn't care about newspaper deadlines.
Another blogger neatly sums it up: "The timing is likely a coincidence. ...Even if it wasn't, the story does not condone violence toward the border patrol; it criticizes violence toward people in custody, along with the fed's refusal to release information to which we are entitled. I support border enforcement, but I want to know if it is being done effectively by qualified. non-sadistic individuals. Gratuitous abuse of arrested immigrants can only serve to heighten the risk to agents in the field."
Agent Terry's tragic death clearly highlights the dangers Border Patrol agents face every day out in remote desert areas. But the dangerous environment is not a pass for any Border Patrol agents to abuse their power or the illegal immigrants in their custody.