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Agents Launch Tear-Gas Attacks on Mexico Border

United States Border Patrol officials say they're under assault guarding a stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego.

Officials say immigrant and drug smugglers have stepped up attacks on agents, who fear for their lives as softball-sized rocks are hurled over the border fence.

People who live just south of the border fence in one of Tijuana's hardscrabble neighborhoods say they're under siege, too, from counterattacks by the U.S. Border Patrol.

On one of the main streets in Tijuana's Colonia Libertad, houses line one side of the street and a 10-foot tall rusty metal fence runs down the other.

For years, people here have joked that they live just a stone's throw from the United States, but last August that turn of phrase became a challenge.

Rubis Guadalupe Argumedo's kitchen window looks out at the border fence. She says one sweltering night last summer she had all the windows open and tear gas poured inside.

She says Border Patrol agents lobbed a canister over the border fence and told her it was payback for the rocks that were being hurled at them.

Argumedo says the tear gas gave her son nosebleeds for two weeks.

11 Injured in Attacks

The Mexican Consulate has confirmed that at least 11 neighbors have been treated at Tijuana hospitals as the assaults have continued.

Argumedo says after a tear gas attack one recent Saturday night, she yelled at a Border Patrol agent from her front porch. "I told him, 'Don't throw anything. There are kids here,'" she recalled. "I said, 'You're not in Iraq.'"

She said he responded that he was sorry, but that the tear gas attacks would continue because rocks were being thrown at the agents.

Two nights later, on the opposite side of the fence, Border Patrol agent Damon Forman's radio crackles with news of the latest rock-throwing incident.

"It just happens. Just moments ago when the sun was up, it was quiet. And now, slowly but surely, there's going to start being movement," Forman said.

Forman is perched on a dirt mound on the U.S. side of the border and can see Argumedo's home.

He says assaults on agents have increased five-fold in the area since October compared to the same time last year.

"At one time, they'll be maybe 15 people on the south side of the fence," he said, "and you'll see the sky fill with rocks, and all of them will come over on top of our agents at one time."

Forman won't acknowledge the use of tear gas, but he says whatever means the agents employ is aimed only at protecting themselves. "I can stand by my word in saying that I am sure those agents — whatever tactics they are using — it's not targeted toward anyone but the people who are committing the assaults and trying to harm our agents."

Mexicans Call for Investigation

Historically, Colonia Libertad has been a haven for smugglers who take advantage of the neighborhood's proximity to the border to stage their operations.

Twelve years ago, hundreds of illegal immigrants would gather on the Mexican side every night, wait for dark and charge into the United States.

But then, the U.S. government built two fences and installed lights and security cameras, and the illegal traffic moved east.

However, now that security in that eastern stretch has gotten tighter, traffic is trickling back west to San Diego, Forman says.

In fact, apprehensions of illegal crossers here are up 7 percent. It's the only place on the border that's shown an increase since last year.

Forman says smuggling organizations have become increasingly desperate and increasingly aggressive.

The Border Patrol has also called in reinforcements and installed steel bars over their vehicle windows.

"It's one of the ways we show we're not going to be pushed around and that we're going to be here," Forman says.

Meanwhile, Mexican Consular officials say they cannot accept the assaults on Mexican citizens on Mexican soil.

They've asked the Border Patrol to investigate and are awaiting the results.

From member station KPBS in San Diego, Amy Isackson reports.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Amy Isackson