On a foggy Saturday night at the end of December, a Border Patrol agent drove an all-terrain vehicle close to the border fence between San Diego and Tijuana, looking for footprints.
To his left, a rust red, 7-foot metal barrier made of landing mats from the Vietnam War separated him from Colonia Libertad, a neighborhood whose gritty northern edges have long been known for smuggling activity.
To his right, rocks, dirt and sand stretched north to an all-weather road. Beyond the road, another fence, an 18-foot steel mesh barricade topped with razor wire, stood between him and the country he had taken an oath to protect.
In the loose soil near the primary fence, he could see signs of a breach better than he would on the road, where his ride would have been smoother and safer.
As he traveled at about 20 mph, a dodge-ball size rock struck him in the chest.
The agent fell, and the ATV flipped on top of him.
On the day the agent was attacked, Border Patrol arrested 108 people crossing illegally in the six-mile stretch where the assault happened, according to Michael Scappechio, a spokesman for Border Patrol in the San Diego Sector.
That’s not uncommon in the fog, Scappechio said.
‘Rockings’ affect border security
While Congress and the White House debate whether and where to add security measures along the southwest border, Border Patrol agents in San Diego hope that the result will help mitigate complications caused by fog.
Smuggling organizations know that Border Patrol’s surveillance cameras don’t work well in the thick fog that rolls in from the ocean around San Diego, so they often use it as a cover to bring larger numbers of people into the U.S.
Border Patrol has almost 2,000 fewer agents than it is supposed to, which means any assault can have an impact on border security.
An assault that injures an agent requires others to respond, spreading them thin along the border. Smuggling organizations try to use this to their advantage, especially in the fog.
Joshua Wilson, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council Local 1613, said agents fear being debilitated by a rock, which could leave them unable to defend themselves or the weapons they carry.
“People say, ‘Oh it was just a rock.’ It wasn’t just a rock. It was a deadly weapon,” Wilson said. “Agents just want to go home at the end of their shift.”
In fiscal 2017, Border Patrol agents in the San Diego Sector reported 83 assaults, according to Scappechio. That’s almost seven assaults per month.
Rockings on agents in the San Diego Sector are not as frequent as they were a decade ago.
In 2008, the same year that construction of border fencing ramped up, reports of assaults on local agents peaked at 377.
Rockings are the predominant type of assault that San Diego agents encounter.
“Unfortunately, it’s the reality of our profession,” said Roy Villareal, deputy chief of the San Diego Sector. “Just like law enforcement as a whole, it’s part and parcel of the job.”
Tough terrain and a place to hide
Large rocks are in ample supply in the terrain along the San Diego Sector.
The area’s hills and primary fence add to the danger because a height advantage compounds the damage a rock can cause.
Mark Conover, a deputy U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California, has been working on border cases for over a decade.
“It does appear as though our Border Patrol agents are regularly under attack at the border,” Conover said, when asked about rocking assaults.
In 2017, his office prosecuted 43 assaults on federal officers. Most of those involved Border Patrol agents, he said.
Several agents voiced frustration that many rock throwers were never prosecuted, meaning there’s little to deter them.
If the rock thrower is on the south side of the fence, catching that person to charge with assault can be difficult.
Border Patrol can call Mexican authorities for help, but the logistics of maneuvering along the steep, pot hole-stricken dirt roads near the border in places like Colonia Libertad make it difficult for Mexican officials to respond in time.
Every agent has a story
“Most of the agents I know have been rocked,” Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Scappechio said. “Everyone with some time in would have a rocking story to tell.”
Scappechio still remembers his scariest rocking experience with vivid detail.
He was working in the Campo area and was sent to respond to a group detected jumping the fence.
When the crossers saw Scappechio and his partner, they turned and tried to climb back to Mexico.
Scappechio and his partner caught one man still on the fence and tried to get him down.
“I look up, and there’s a guy right over top of me and my partner holding a big rock,” Scappechio said. “I pulled my weapon, and the guy dropped it.”
The agents arrested the man they caught on the fence, and as soon as they put the man in the back of their SUV, it began to get “pummeled” with rocks, Scappechio said. The agents were still outside.
Scappechio and other agents recalled using “war wagons,” or Border Patrol vehicles with windshields and windows reinforced by metal mesh, in 2008 to protect themselves from rockings.
The reinforced vehicles are still used in some parts of the border, but not in San Diego.
Better technology to enhance security
Deputy Chief Villareal hopes that private industry will be able to develop technology to help the San Diego Sector combat challenges imposed by fog that increase the likelihood of rockings.
Some surveillance solutions used in other parts of the border, particularly those that fly, won’t work in San Diego because Border Patrol hasn’t been able to get clearance for use of the needed air space, Villareal said.
Surveillance technology used by the U.S. Coast Guard isn’t equipped to handle “noise” created by people and cars moving around in areas near the border, he said.
“We’re always in pursuit of new technology,” Villareal said. “The largest snag is always funding.”
Agent Wilson said that the union believes President Donald Trump’s promised border wall will solve the fog and rocking issue.
Increasing the number of agents along the border would also help, he said.
“We’re feeling the crunch,” Wilson said. “In terms of manpower, what we’re able to deploy every day to the line is really depleted.”
Vicki Gaubeca, a policy strategist at Southern Border Communities Coalition, an organization that has protested Trump’s border policies, said technology would be a better solution than the wall.
“I think that what it boils down to is that they need truly data-driven resources that are really going to be effective on the border, not just to throw good money at bad solutions,” Gaubeca said.
She emphasized that surveillance added for border security should come with privacy protections.
“I think the vast majority of Americans would feel like their private information should be safeguarded,” Gaubeca said.
She also called for more accountability and oversight of the agency, especially with hiring increases.
“My hope is that that’s what the agency is doing all the time, looking at every single incident whether there has been an injury or death and to evaluate what they could’ve done differently,” Gaubeca said. “Even in cases where the injury or the death happened to the person who they were encountering, I would hope there is some kind of review to ensure that there is some kind of prevention on both sides, on the agent’s welfare and life as well as the public’s safety.”
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