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On New Year’s Eve, U.S. authorities fired tear gas to stop roughly 150 migrants who had approached the border fence in Tijuana.
Customs and Border Protection said after the incident that the group was trying to enter illegally, climbing over and crawling under the border fence. Immigration authorities also said that agents deployed smoke, pepper spray and tear gas because migrants had begun to throw rocks at officers.
“These countermeasures successfully suppressed the rock throwers causing them to flee the area,” CBP said in a statement after the incident. “No agents witnessed any of the migrants at the fence line, including children, experiencing effects of the chemical agents, which were targeted at the rock throwers further away.”
The agency apprehended 25 people, including two teenagers, and the incident will be reviewed by CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility under the agency’s use of force policy.
“Instead of trying to come north or surrender, they decided to assault Broder Patrol agents with a hail of rocks,” said San Diego Sector Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott in describing the incident on Twitter.
But those official accounts have been questioned by several journalists and American activists who were present at the incident, as KPBS reported Wednesday.
VOSD contributor Vito Di Stefano was there that night, taking photos. He described to us what he saw, and provided several haunting images of the encounter.
Di Stefano said he had heard that many migrants were preparing to cross on New Year’s Eve, since they thought there might be fewer officials guarding the border during the holidays.
“I didn’t speak with many [migrants] as my Spanish is awful,” he said. “[I] mostly just observed with my camera. [It] was cold and rainy earlier and I imagine they had been there most of the evening.”
He first came upon a group of 20 to 30 migrants, later a much bigger group of 70 to 100 people arrived. The group included a small number of children from what he observed.
Here is what happened next, in Di Stefano’s words.
“More and more migrants arrived on the hill and were peeking through the small holes in the wall to survey the best they could. There was an incline of the hill that mainly the migrants were spread out on. They were basically scoping out the area as to where best to cross and trying NOT making their presence known. There was one Border Patrol SUV with its lights on in the immediate distance. The important thing to keep in mind [is] the flood lights were on the U.S. side. So the wall and its shadow were able to keep the migrants somewhat ‘hidden’ from the Border Patrol view. After a while, a BP agent on an ATV tried to get a look at the shadows up the incline (where the migrants were hiding) by shining a flashlight. Everyone was dead silent and in the shadows. He then went and met up with another BP agent, and they started walking up the incline parallel to the migrants, shining their flashlight. I was sitting next to and slightly above a small hole under the fence. … I heard the BP agents’ voices but didn’t make out what they were saying, but they were obviously very close. Then I saw their flashlight peek into the jagged hole. My feet were close, but the light never hit them, so I didn’t move because I didn’t want to make any noise. After a few seconds of silence, I hear some metal-ly clickety-clacking. Instantaneously, I see a projectile tumble into the hole near my feet and start to flare up. I got the fuck up and headed up the hill. Luckily the wind was blowing southwest-ish and not in my direction, so I was able to avoid the gas at that moment.”
Di Stefano said everyone scattered.
“After a while the migrants came to a plateau … and looked on at the Border Patrol as a group,” he said. “Soon after another volley of tear gas came. [I] cannot say what provoked it. They were better deployed because big clouds of tear gas covered the whole crowd and again the crowd dispersed all the way to the highway. This happened at least one more time before I left.”
Di Stefano said he didn’t speak with any of the activists who were there, though he saw them providing milk of magnesia to the migrants who had been tear-gassed.
He captured the encounter in a series of photos: