Agent's death highlights attacks on Border Patrol

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Officer Down: Senior Border Patrol Agent Luis Aguilar

By Richard Marosi
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

IMPERIAL SAND DUNES, Calif. — The off-road enthusiasts were revving their dune buggies and all-terrain vehicles Saturday morning when a brown Hummer suddenly cut into the campground. The man at the wheel, a suspected drug smuggler, was heading to Mexico, fast.

U.S. Border Patrol Agent Luis Aguilar, the only person in the way, threw a spike strip in front of the car. The Hummer sped up. "It looked like the man swerved and hit the agent intentionally," said one witness.

Aguilar, struck by the Hummer going an estimated 55 mph, died within minutes.

On Sunday, officials released more details about the attack in the Imperial Sand Dunes recreation area, which came amid a surge in assaults against federal agents in many areas along the border in recent months.

U.S. authorities said the suspect drove over the dunes back to Mexico along with another vehicle. The FBI, which is handling the investigation, said Mexican authorities are assisting in the probe.

Aguilar, 32, a six-year veteran, was part of an anti-smuggling team patrolling the scenic landscape of sand dunes and trailer-dotted campgrounds in southeast California. On weekends, when the dunes fill with riders, Mexican smugglers slip across the open border, trying to blend in with the other off-road vehicles.

Authorities suspect the Hummer was carrying drugs. The suspects had been driving west on Interstate 8, but when they saw the Border Patrol following, they turned off the freeway and started speeding back to Mexico.

On an access road to the Buttercup campground, just two miles from the border, Aguilar was waiting for them at an intersection. Authorities said it was unclear whether the suspect intentionally ran over the agent, or swerved to avoid the spike strip.

At the intersection Sunday, visitors left flowers and a card, and erected an American flag. Many campsites flew their American flags at half-staff. "It's horrible, but not surprising," said James R. Broxholme, a vendor of dune buggy parts. He said Border Patrol pursuits are a regular occurrence at the campground, about 15 miles from the Arizona border.

Nationwide, assaults against Border Patrol agents rose from 752 in 2006 to 987 in 2007. Authorities say clashes are likely to continue as smugglers respond to beefed-up border security with more aggressive measures.

"I think it was just a matter of time. Agents are getting assaulted every day," said Jeremy Schappell, a Border Patrol spokesman.

Aguilar, originally from El Paso, Texas, was married with two children, Schappell said.

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