Smugglers thwarted after making ‘brazen smuggling attempt’ by cutting hole in border fence near Campo

Border Patrol agents said they stopped a “brazen smuggling attempt” in East County Wednesday when they found someone had driven a stolen utility truck carrying 16 people through a hole that had been cut in the border fence.

The breach in the fencing, which is made of old landing mats and was constructed in the 1990s, was discovered by agents around 3:45 p.m. near Campo, said Border Patrol Agent Theron Francisco.

About 15 minutes later, agents found a man with bolt cutters trying to cut a lock on a Campo property owner’s gate. Agents tried to pull over the man’s vehicle, a white Dodge 4500 utility truck later discovered to be stolen, but he took off driving.

After a short pursuit that cut through several private properties, the truck stopped and the driver and passengers ran off.

Fifteen passengers and the 27-year-old driver were tracked down and arrested, officials said. All 16 admitted to entering the country without authorization and were taken to a Border Patrol station for processing. No injuries were reported.

The group included nine male Mexican nationals between the ages of 15 and 53; five female Mexican nationals between the ages of 18 and 40; a 28-year-old Guatemalan man and a 29-year-old Guatemalan woman, officials said. The truck was seized and the driver is expected to be prosecuted.

The fence opening remained Thursday and a Border Patrol agent was stationed near it to keep people from entering the country illegally. “We just have an agent there that will guard it until it is fixed,” Francisco said.

Francisco said the Dodge was stolen in the U.S. and driven into Mexico before it was brought back into the country by the alleged smuggler.

Such “drive thru” incursions of the older border fence are common, particularly when there is dense fog or heavy rain that cuts down on visibility and makes roads more difficult to travel, Francisco said. The incursion occurred in an area where the new fence hasn’t been constructed.

“A vehicle drive-thru, with overloaded and unsecured passengers, particularly in this terrain, can certainly result in a rollover accident with serious injuries and death,” San Diego Sector Interim Chief Douglas Harrison said in a statement. “The breach of this old landing mat wall is illustrative of the need for more hardened infrastructure with greater impedance and denial capabilities to keep the area secure.”

He added that he was “proud” of his agents’ “steadfast vigilance” that stopped the smuggling attempt.

*story by San Diego Union-Tribune