SAN ANTONIO - U.S. law enforcement officials exchanged about 300 rounds of gunfire with suspected drug runners during a pre-dawn shootout across the Rio Grande, but only about six came from the suspects, authorities said Friday.
The Texas Department of Public Safety, whose Rangers were involved in the shootout, said such an overwhelming response was standard given the United States' zero tolerance policy when guns are pointed at its authorities. Department officials previously said the Americans were under "heavy fire," but they've since backed away from that.
The incident began about 6:30 a.m. Thursday, when U.S. Border Patrol agents spotted a Dodge Durango near the lightly populated border town of Abram, Texas, said Steve McCraw, director of the Department of Public Safety Director. He joined officials from Border Patrol and Texas Fish and Wildlife for a news conference Friday in Weslaco, roughly 250 miles south of San Antonio and just north of the river separating Mexico and the U.S.
Agents who gave chase found the truck abandoned on the banks of the Rio Grande, and a group of people on the Mexican shore unloading bundles of marijuana from rubber rafts, according to the Department of Public Safety.
Border Patrol agents say Mexican smugglers often use small, high-quality rafts to float drugs into U.S. territory, where they load them onto waiting vehicles to be taken farther north. Of late, however, smugglers wait with the rafts in American territory in case the vehicles are spotted and have to flee back to the river. There, they quickly put the drugs back onto the rafts and head back to Mexico to keep U.S. authorities from seizing the load.
That's what happened Thursday, the Department of Public Safety said, except U.S. authorities arrived in time to see a group of people who had already made it back to the Mexican side removing packets of marijuana from rafts.
The group threw rocks and shot ``at least six'' rounds at American agents, who responded by flooding the area with gunfire, the Department of Public Safety said. A U.S. Border Patrol boat was the first to arrive on the scene, followed by boats from Texas Parks and Wildlife and one belonging to the Texas Rangers, it said.
"Authorities said they are still looking into how many Americans fired shots and what agencies they were from."
Three suspects on the Mexican side of the river were believed injured or killed, although authorities in that country were still working to confirm that. Two U.S. game wardens were treated for cuts and abrasions after being struck with rocks.
A video shot from a Department of Public Safety helicopter shows a blue raft with bundles of marijuana packed in plastic and burlap. Smoke is seen pouring from a small structure nearby, although what caused the fire is unclear.
U.S. authorities seized the Durango but found no drugs in it. They contacted authorities in Mexico, who seized about 400 pounds of marijuana on that side of the river and destroyed a raft left behind. No arrests were made.
The shootout happened near a part of the Rio Grande where Border Patrol agents seized about 1,200 pounds of marijuana on Wednesday.
In that incident, Border Patrol agents chased a black Chevy Silvadrado across U.S. territory as its driver sped back to the Rio Grande. There, about 20 people were waiting with rafts that likely had been used to move the drugs onto American soil moments earlier. The plan was to move the drugs back into Mexico, but the driver only had time to steer the truck partially into the river. He and at least two passengers, as well as those on the bank, escaped into Mexico.
Since January 2010, the Department of Public Safety has tracked at least a dozen incidents of shots being fired from Mexico into Texas, with U.S. agents shooting back in some cases. No U.S. authorities have been reported hurt.
June 10, 2011