Thousands Honor Slain Border Agent

Thousands honor slain border agent
`What he did was confront a situation where uncertainty and doubt abound,' agency's chief says of Robert Rosas

By Sandra Dibble and Leslie Berestein
The San Diego Union-Tribune, August 1, 2009

El Centro, CA — Not far from an isolated and increasingly dangerous stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border where he lost his life, Border Patrol Agent Robert Rosas was mourned yesterday by thousands who gathered in this desert city to honor one of their own.

An overflow crowd of more than 4,000 at Southwest High School included family members, former classmates, top government officials and numerous fellow law enforcement officers. Hundreds also endured punishing temperatures at a graveside ceremony with bugles, bagpipes and mariachi music.

'What he did was confront a situation where uncertainty and doubt abound,' Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar said.

Rosas, 30, a three-year member of the force, was patrolling alone in the Campo area after 9 p.m. July 23 when someone opened fire near the border fence. Rosas became the first Border Patrol agent killed by gunfire since 1998, according to a Web site that tracks law enforcement deaths.

Mourners remembered Rosas as a man who loved life, a husband and father of two who cherished his family, was devoted to his job and dreamed that son Robert Matthew, 2, would one day follow in his footsteps. Eulogies described Rosas as having both the grit to patrol the lonely stretches of border country, where smugglers move illegal immigrants and drugs, and the sensitivity to cry over a beautiful song.

'I'm sure he knew it was a dangerous job,' said Diana Diaz, who attended McKinley Elementary School with Rosas and graduated with him from Central Union High School. 'But it was something he wanted to do as a career for himself.'

Rosas worked for two years as a reserve officer in the El Centro Police Department, then for six as a state prison guard, taking a pay cut to join the Border Patrol.

'He was the kind of guy who couldn't do something if he didn't enjoy what he was doing,' said Jerry Conlin, a spokesman for the Border Patrol's San Diego sector who worked with Rosas in Campo.

Rosas was one of 2,500 agents serving in the San Diego sector, which runs along 61 miles from the Pacific Ocean to the Imperial County line. As elsewhere on the border, assaults against agents have increased in recent years.

Most of the 377 attacks against the sector's agents last year — from rock and bottle throwing to physical altercations — occurred in the urbanized western stretch between the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa crossings. But unpopulated areas such as Campo present their own patrol challenges, Conlin said.

'It's such a remote area. There's a thick, heavy brush throughout. There's canyons,' he said. 'Someone working at night, you have no idea what surrounds you because of the terrain.'

East County has long been crisscrossed by smuggling routes, particularly since tighter border enforcement near San Ysidro beginning in the mid-1990s drove illegal border-crossing traffic east.

In the mountainous area surrounding Tecate and east toward Campo, state Route 94 runs close to the border, providing a route into San Diego and the freeway system.

It's a route that has become popular with deported ex-convicts. In recent years, immigration officials have cracked down on deportable inmates in the prison system. Convicts from throughout the West Coast who are deported to Mexico after serving sentences are sent through California ports of entry, such as those at San Ysidro and Calexico.

As a result, East County draws a disproportionate share of ex-cons eager to return to the only country they know, said Border Patrol Agent Jose Morales, a sector spokesman.

'We're well aware that these are not all good guys coming to work,' Morales said. 'We have encountered people still with prison ID.'

Mexican authorities detained five people after Rosas' slaying. Only one, Ernesto Parra Valenzuela, has been directly linked to the shooting, accused by a fellow smuggling suspect. Parra is being held while Mexican prosecutors seek to press homicide, smuggling, firearms and organized-crime charges. The FBI hasn't announced any arrests.

Yesterday, the accuser, Jos Eugenio Quintero Ruiz, and his brother, Jos Ebodio, were indicted on charges of smuggling and firearms violations by a federal judge in Mexico.

As the cost of being smuggled across the border has gone up, the character of the organizations doing the smuggling has changed, agents say.

Mom-and-pop human-smuggling groups who once led illegal immigrants north have been replaced by organized crime, the agents say.

'You now have the same people who are pushing drugs across (the border) waking up to the fact that there is a lot of money to be made,' said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents Border Patrol agents.

'These are not people who are very nice, to put it mildly,' said Bonner, who worked out of Campo for three decades.

Smugglers have become more aggressive, and attacks against Border Patrol agents have become more common. In January 2008, an agent from the Yuma, Ariz., sector was killed in the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area when a suspected smuggler rammed his Humvee into the agent's all-terrain vehicle.

At El Centro's Evergreen Cemetery, Rosas' mourners stood in temperatures that rose to 109 degrees.

Among them was Robert Martinez, who had known Rosas since the two were boys on El Centro's northwest side. Martinez, who's now with the Police Department in Imperial, four miles north of El Centro, said Rosas 'was like my little brother' and showed an aptitude for law enforcement work early on.

'He was very inquisitive, always wanting to know what was going on,' Martinez said.


O.C. witness speaks about killing of border agent
Britt Craig of Mission Viejo said he witnessed the killing of a border agent more than a week ago.
By Cindy Carcamo
The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, CA), August 1, 2009

Thousands attend memorial for slain Border Patrol agent
The Associated Press, July 31, 2009,0,3840376.story