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BP reveals elite team had desert shootout earlier this month

Discussing a Tuesday shooting case, Border Patrol officials told TucsonSentinel.com on Wednesday that the agency's elite BORTAC team took part earlier this month in another incident: a shootout with five suspected drug smugglers.

After an exchange of gunfire that authorities said was initiated by the suspects, five men were arrested April 7 in Pinal County. No one was wounded, and hundreds of pounds of marijuana were seized in the incident, which was not disclosed until TucsonSentinel.com questioned BP officials about their tally of recent firearms use cases.

The head of the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector held a press conference at the agency's local headquarters Wednesday, briefing reporters about incident Tuesday in which a BP agent fired his sidearm twice at a 18-year-old man after the man reportedly threw rocks at the agent. 

Tuesday afternoon, agents from the BP station in Casa Grande were tracking a group of suspected smugglers near the village of Cowlic, southwest of Sells and about 75 miles from Tucson.

Around 4:15 p.m., the agents approached the group and one of the suspected smugglers fled the scene and an agent gave chase, Tucson Sector Chief Paul Beeson told reporters.

"As the agent approached the subject, the suspect stopped, picked up some rocks and began throwing them at the agent, making verbal threats," Beeson said. 

The agent fired two shots, Beeson said. 

Both rounds missed the subject, who was apprehended after a brief chase, he said.

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Beeson did not identify the man or the agent, but said that the suspected smuggler was an 18-year old Honduran man who had been previously deported. Beeson said that the man could face charges for smuggling as well as illegal re-entry, and that other charges were pending while the incident was investigated. 

The agent is a 12-year veteran of the Border Patrol and was on administrative leave pending the outcome an investigation conducted by the FBI and CBP's Office of Professional Responsibility, Beeson said. 

Agents found four bundles of marijuana, weighing around 247 pounds, Beeson said. 

"The incident highlights the challenges associated with the dangerous environment that agents work in, day in and day out," Beeson said. "We expect our agents to utilize safe tactics, and in doing so they retain the right to protect themselves."

April 7 shootout previously undisclosed

Beeson said that the press conference was part of an effort to be transparent when it comes to use-of-force incidents, especially those that involve firearms. 

"Our goal today is to be as transparent and proactive as possible in getting this information out to you as quickly and accurately as possible," he said. 

Over the last two years, the agency has been routinely criticized for a lack of transparency when it comes to use-of-force incidents. 

In 2014, the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit research and policy organization with close ties to police agencies, issued a stinging report, arguing that CBP maintained a "lack of diligence" in investigating use-of-force incidents. This "no-harm, no-foul" approach lead to "tacit approval of bad practices," the report said. 

The report also questioned the agency's seriousness with regard to deadly force incidents, writing: "It is not clear that CBP consistently and thoroughly reviews all use of deadly force incidents." 

The report was released by CBP Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske, who said he would establish transparency as a top priority. In October, the agency released use-of-force figures for the entire agency, but waited until early April to release figures at the sector level, including the Tucson Sector, which covers most of Arizona. Border enforcement agents reported using force 58 times in Southern Arizona since October.

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This was the fourth time a Border Patrol agent fired his weapon in the Tucson Sector since last October, Beeson said.

In October, a Border Patrol agent patrolling near Naco fired his sidearm through the border fence, after he said a person in Mexico pointed what the agent believed was a firearm at him. No one was injured. 

On Jan. 25, Tucson Sector agents tracked a vehicle believed to be connected in smuggling southeast of Rodeo, N.M. Agents later found the truck, stuck in mud, with approximately 2,340 pounds of marijuana in the back. Two suspects fled into the surrounding mountainous terrain near the Arizona-New Mexico border, east of Apache.  

One agent caught up to a suspect, and a struggle ensued. The agent fired his pistol, wounding the suspect. 

The suspect sustained a "non-life threatening injury and was medically treated," said Matthew Eisenhower, a CBP spokesman. Eisenhower said that the suspect remains in federal custody at a facility in Florence pending charges for assault on a federal agent. 

Information about the third case was not released until Wednesday, when TucsonSentinel.com queried officials about their count of BP firearms incidents.

Eisenhower said that on April 7—the day that CBP released new data regarding use-of-force incidents by sector— a group of elite BP agents known as BORTAC intercepted several smugglers carrying large bundles of marijuana near Arizona City, west of Eloy.

As the Border Patrol Tactical Unit agents approached the group, an unknown number of shots were fired at the agents, and the agents returned fire, said Eisenhower. No one was hit in the exchange of gunfire, and five suspects were taken into custody and around 450 pounds of marijuana was seized. 

When asked about the release of information regarding use-of-force cases, Beeson said, "We're going to look at the circumstances." 

Beeson said the agency would continue to put out information regarding cases, echoing an earlier statement from CBP's spokeswoman Jenny Burke, who said on April 7 that the agency would be updating information monthly on its website. 

"We felt like this was an appropriate course of action, I'm not saying we're going to do this each and every time, but in this particular incident, that's what we're going to do." 

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Tucson Sector Chief Paul Beeson