For retired Border Patrol officer Ed Dornbusch, the shooting deaths of two fellow agents in San Benito, Texas, this week are just another reminder of the dangers that come with the job.
"It's not a day-to-day occurrence," says Mr. Dornbusch, who retired from the Border Patrol last year after 31 years of service. "But when you check over the years, there have been more Border Patrol agents killed in the line of duty than in any other federal agency."
The statistics are indeed grim: The two agents killed in San Benito join 79 other Border Patrol officers killed on duty in the agency's 74-year history. For grieving families and friends, their deaths are personal tragedies. But for the Border Patrol agents controlling America's southern frontier, Tuesday's shootout highlights the growing dangers that come not only from gun-toting drug runners, but also from everyday disputes in border villages where they are sometimes the only law in town.
"This event spotlights the dangers these agents put themselves into every day," says Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington.
To some, the circumstances that led to the deaths of Border Patrol agents Susan Rodriguez and Ricardo Salinas may seem outside the traditional duties of a Border Patrol squad. On Tuesday morning, they received a call to help sheriff's deputies in Cameron County search for a man suspected of murdering two women while looking for his estranged girlfriend.
After locating the suspect's truck, Agents Rodriguez and Salinas left their vehicle to search a nearby house. The gunman, who was hiding in an adjacent cornfield, shot them dead. The sheriff's deputy, Paul Rodriguez, was critically wounded in the attack.
Three other deputies and a third Border Patrol agent shot the suspect, who later died.
The incident is symptomatic of the border violence that has turned some quiet US-Mexico border towns into virtual free-fire zones. Driving this rise in violence is the massive and growing drug trade, where more than 300 tons of cocaine and untold amounts of other drugs are brought across the border each year.
To meet this challenge, Congress has more than doubled the Border Patrol during the past five years. But for the growing number of Border Patrol agents - not to mention innocent bystanders - more firepower has sometimes meant more deadly encounters with well-armed foes.
In this atmosphere, some political leaders have renewed calls for military assistance to the Border Patrol, albeit in a supportive role. Last month, the US House of Representatives passed a bill that would authorize the Pentagon to send as many as 10,000 troops to the border, if they were requested by the Immigration and Naturalization Service and its sub-agency, the Border Patrol.
What is the best solution?
Such a deployment is bound to be controversial, especially after the 1996 shooting death of Redford, Texas, resident Esequiel Hernandez by a squad of US marines. Some critics say that the solution is not more agents and soldiers on the border, but cutting the demand for drugs inside the US.
"My uncle in Mexico says that Mexico is the diving board and the US is the pool," says Joel Najar, spokesman for the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic-rights group in Washington. "The solution is having the Mexican government crack down on drug smuggling on their side, and to reduce demand on this side."
For their part, many longtime Border Patrol agents say current crackdowns in San Diego, Nogales, Ariz., and El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas are too little, too late. And they long for the days when the typical illegal immigrant was a "Guanajuato Joe," just a friendly middle-aged guy coming for work.
"All you had to do to bring him in was to wave at him and say, 'Hey you, come here,' " recalls Dornbusch. "Now we get more and more who come from Mexico City. They've got tattoos, and they're not just here to work. They steal cars, they sell dope, and they carry guns."
Like Dornbusch, William King, former chief of the US Border Patrol Academy, is angered by the killings of the two Border Patrol agents in San Benito. But when it comes to blame, he points directly to the top.
"My heart goes out to these kids, but I would blame the hierarchy of the INS and the Department of Justice for failing to do their job," says Mr. King, who is also the founder of the Alan C. Nelson Foundation for Responsible Immigration in Irvine, Calif. "We're losing our sovereignty. We can't control our borders."
The only solution, he says, is putting military troops back on the border, providing the sort of logistical support, such as radar-surveillance, mechanical repair, and road-building that would give Border Patrol agents the time to devote themselves to halting illegal crossings.
The current measures and operations just don't do the job, King says. "It's like Pascal's law of hydromechanics. You push down here, and it squirts up there."