NOGALES, Ariz. — A shootout between border patrol agents and bandits in the rugged canyons near Mexico's border left one officer dead and a suspect injured, a union official said Wednesday, the latest outburst of violence along the busiest smuggling corridor into the U.S.
The killing in southeastern Arizona was a stark reminder of the complicated nature of border security: It was Brian A. Terry's job to turn back illegal border crossers, but he was apparently killed by bandits who prey on those same migrants.
"This is a sign that the politicians and bureaucrats are overly optimistic in their assessment that the borders are more secure now than at any point in our history," said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents 17,000 agents.
Terry, 40, was part of a team of officers whose job was to drop into hotspots, and quell the violence.
The shooting took place about 13 miles north of the border, near Nogales late Tuesday night, at the bottom of a flat canyon with scattered oak trees and knee-high grass. Rugged trails through mountains make the spot difficult to reach.
Terry was waiting with three other agents when a gun battle with bandits began, Bonner said.
Terry and the other agents came across a group of five people. There was no sign that they were hauling drugs, but two were carrying rifles, said Border Patrol Agent Brandon Judd, president of the local agents' union. Judd said he did not know what prompted the firefight.
No other agents were injured, but one of the suspects was wounded. Bonner said the wounded suspect was from Mexico, but the country of origin of the remaining suspects hasn't been publicly released.
Bonner and Judd said their accounts were based on information they got from agents in the field.
The Border Patrol and the FBI have refused to confirm the details of Bonner's account, beyond saying that authorities have four suspects in custody and are searching for a fifth. At a Border Patrol news conference on Wednesday, officials released few details.
Bandits have operated at the border for decades, robbing and sexually assaulting illegal immigrants crossing into the country.
The bandits stake out heavily traveled smuggling paths used by illegal immigrants and sneak up on them, pointing guns, forcing border-crossers to the ground and stealing all their valuables. Bandits, however, avoid run-ins with drug smugglers.
"You won't have much of a life expectancy if you play around with the cartels," Bonner said.
Terry, a former Marine and Michigan police officer, was part of an elite squad similar to a police SWAT team that was sent to the remote areas north of Nogales known for border banditry, drug smuggling and violence.
"His dream all his life was to be a federal agent," Terry's sister, Michelle Terry-Balogh, 42, told The Associated Press from Flat Rock, Mich., just outside Detroit. "It was always 'I want to be a cop, I want to get the bad guys.'"
After he left the Marine Corps, Terry got a degree in criminal justice and then worked as a police officer in Ecorse and Lincoln Park, both in Michigan, she said. Terry joined the Border Patrol three years ago, and Terry-Balogh said he just loved it.
"It was his life," she said. "He said it was very dangerous but he loved what he did and wanted to make a difference."
She said Terry had focused all his life on his career, but had recently met someone special in Michigan and was hoping to have children someday. He also had planned to fly out Friday for a 10-day visit with his family in Michigan.
The last time an agent was killed in the line of duty was in September. Agent Michael Gallagher died in a wreck during a patrol in Arizona.
"It is a stark reminder of the very real dangers our men and women on the front lines confront every day as they protect our communities and the American people," said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. She said last October that the border was more secure than ever before.
Napolitano plans to be in Arizona on Thursday and Friday to meet with Border Patrol agents in Nogales and Tucson.
The shooting occurred in the Border Patrol's Tucson sector, the busiest gateway for illegal immigrants into the United States. Half of the marijuana seizures along the 1,969-mile southern border are made in the sector, which covers 262 miles of the boundary.
As the busiest illegal entry point for drugs and immigrants into the U.S., Arizona has become the backdrop of the heated immigration debate.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who has criticized the federal government's efforts to secure the border and signed Arizona's illegal-immigration law this year, said the killing reminded people of "the threats facing all who serve in protecting our state and nation."