WASHINGTON – A U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent was killed and two others seriously wounded early Thursday in a shootout with suspected smugglers aboard a vessel off the coast of Puerto Rico, officials said.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told a Senate panel that the deceased agent, who was not immediately identified, was part of CBP’s Air and Marine Operations unit and that the others were “gravely wounded.”
The Department of Homeland Security later said one of the two smugglers also was killed in the 8 a.m. clash, about 14 miles off the coast of Cabo Rojo.
The wounded agents suffered “various gunshot wounds,” the agency said, adding that the victims were airlifted to a Puerto Rico trauma center.
The second suspect was arrested by federal authorities.
Later in the morning, another Customs unit intercepted a second vessel resulting in the arrests of two suspects and the seizure of an undisclosed number of firearms.
Larry Cosme, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association whose membership includes more than 31,000 officers and agents, said late Thursday that one of the wounded agents “remains in the hospital fighting for… life.”
He said the third agent is in stable condition.
“The agents dutifully approached a vessel off the coast of Puerto Rico believed to be carrying controlled substances when the gun fire broke out,” Cosme said. “This is an important reminder of the violence associated with drug trafficking and the lethal lengths smugglers will go to protect their supply.
“Unfortunately, we are seeing a steady increase in drug smuggling via boats in the Caribbean. CBP personnel, particularly the Air and Marine Operations division, are on the front lines of countering these criminals,” he said.
Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, the Senate Homeland Security Committee’s ranking Republican, described the incident as a reflection of a fraught period in the effort against drug interdiction.
“It’s a dangerous time, and this is an unfortunate example of that,” Portman said during a hearing where Mayorkas and other top national security officials were testifying about threats to the homeland.