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Border Patrol accused in immigrants' deaths

Survivors: Officers drove Mexicans into river, where 3 drowned

From Mike M. Ahlers and David de Sola
CNN Washington Bureau

Department of Homeland Security
Crime, Law and Justice

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. officials are investigating allegations that Border Patrol officers threw rocks at several illegal immigrants who had crossed the Rio Grande, forcing them to re-enter the river and leading to the drowning deaths of two women and a teenage girl.

The incident is alleged to have occurred in the predawn hours Thursday on a stretch of river near Eagle Pass, Texas.

Two men and a teenage boy survived the incident, but the three women disappeared and their bodies were recovered late last week, Mexican officials said.

The dead were identified as Maria Guadalupe Gomez Patino, 37; her daughter, Adriana Martinez Gomez, 16; and Carmen Bustamante Aguirre, 33.

The Department of Homeland Security's inspector general's office is investigating, officials said.

U.S. and Mexican officials gave sketchy and seemingly conflicting accounts of the incident.

Mexico Consul General Jorge Ernesto Espejel Montes, citing survivors' accounts, told CNN the group of six had made it across the river and were on U.S. soil when two U.S. Border Patrol officers yelled at them and ordered them to go back to Mexico.

The officers threw stones at them, forcing them back into the water, Espejel said the survivors had reported.

He said statements by the two adult survivors did not indicate how big the rocks were or whether any of the immigrants were struck.

Border Patrol spokesman Dennis Smith said agents "saw some people in distress across the river near the Mexican bank, and that was reported up through Border Patrol channels and relayed to Mexican officials."

He declined to comment on reports that agents threw rocks.

"It's under investigation and there really aren't any details we can release," Smith said.

A remote surveillance video camera recorded part of the incident, Smith said, "and that's being taken into account" in the investigation.

The inspector general's office declined to comment.

An immigrant aid group in Mexico that obtained statements from the two adult survivors gave a more detailed account.

Angel Ceniceros of Grupo Beta de Proteccion a Migrantes said the two men said the people had crossed the river and had walked about 450 feet when they saw a white-and-green patrol vehicle.

They hid behind bushes, but two Border Patrol agents started yelling at them and ordering them to come out, Ceniceros said.

The agents pointed their flashlights toward the river, ordered the people to return to Mexico and threw rocks at them, he said.

The men said the river current was stronger on the return trip.

Smith said he was uncertain how wide the river was at the site, saying the width can vary when water is released from an upstream dam.

"There are times when the river is not as treacherous and there are other times when it's just impassable, and that's the danger of crossing illegally," he said.

"And that's why we have public campaigns to let people know the dangers of crossing illegally.

"Any loss of life is tragic, and you know we want people to be safe out there," Smith said.

Border Patrol agents respond to immigrants in distress on a case-by-case basis, he said.

"If an agent feels that he can safely rescue someone, then he or she may do it. Obviously we do not require our agents to risk their lives," Smith said.

"There have been numerous occasions where our agents have rescued people in distress in the river."

Espejel identified the survivors as Gerardo Ojeda, 31; Mario Ortega, 26; and Ismael Martinez, 11. All are from the Mexican state of Guanajuato.

He said the two men gave statements to Mexican authorities and planned to meet with inspector general investigators soon.

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