Attacks on U.S. Border Patrol agents nearly doubled along the Mexican border during the past year as authorities stepped up efforts to curb drug smuggling and illegal immigration.
In the face of tightened security along the border, increasingly desperate drug and immigrant traffickers have assaulted agents with rocks, marbles fired from slingshots, even gunfire and Molotov cocktails.
At least 687 assaults against agents were recorded in the fiscal year that ended on September 30, up from 354 in the previous year, and the highest since the agency began tracking assaults along the border, the Los Angeles Times reports.
Projectiles hurled by smugglers and migrants have dented Border Patrol vehicles and shattered windshields. Agents in the Tucson and San Diego sectors have reported being shot at 43 times, compared to 18 times the previous year.
Three agents were shot in the leg, and least 20 others were hospitalized, many with head injuries after being struck by rocks.
Agents have shot and killed five suspected smugglers in the Tucson and San Diego sectors, including a man armed with a semi-automatic weapon who was suspected of waiting to pick up migrants.
In another encounter, an agent came under fire as he approached a vehicle being loaded with drugs, and nearly two dozen bullets struck the agent's vehicle. He suffered a leg wound.
In Calexico, Calif., across the border from Mexicali, smugglers have begun tossing Molotov cocktails at agents.
Officials say the increased number of attacks is a result of rising frustration among drug and immigrant smugglers, who have seen traditional smuggling routes blocked by a border buildup that has seen the number of agents rise to an all-time high of 11,000 along the Mexican border.
"They're feeling they have to fight their way through now," Jim Hawkins, a spokesman for the agency's Tucson sector, told the Times.
"We're taking their livelihood away from them, so they're getting angry and desperate." Most assaults occur in Arizona and California, where borders have been heavily fortified.
That has driven many smugglers to the New Mexico border. Illegal immigration has become such a huge problem there that Gov. Bill Richardson declared a state of emergency in four of his state's counties bordering Mexico.
"It's not just illegal immigrants," Richardson said. "It's criminal, violent activity that has been spawned by the illegal immigrant traffic and by some of the characters who are using that to bring in drugs and theft and violence."
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