NACO, Ariz. – A Border Patrol agent was shot to death Tuesday in Arizona near the U.S.-Mexico line, the first fatal shooting of an agent since a deadly 2010 firefight with Mexican bandits that spawned congressional probes of a botched government gun-smuggling investigation.
The agent, Nicholas Ivie, 30, and a colleague were on patrol in the desert near Naco, Ariz., about 100 miles from Tucson, when shooting broke out shortly before 2 a.m., the Border Patrol said. The second agent was shot in the ankle and buttocks, and was reported to be in stable condition Tuesday afternoon.
Authorities have not identified the agent who was wounded, nor did they say whether any weapons were seized at the site of the shooting.
At a news conference in Naco, an FBI official said the agency still was processing the crime scene and it might take several days to complete. The FBI and the Cochise County Sheriff's Office, which is also investigating, declined to say whether investigators have recovered guns or bullet casings.
No arrests have been made, but authorities suspect that more than one person fired at the agents.
"It's been a long day for us but it's been longer for no one more than a wife whose husband is not coming home. It's been longer for two children whose father is not coming home, and that is what is going to strengthen our resolve" to find those responsible and enforce the law, said Jeffrey Self, commander of Customs and Border Protection's Arizona joint field command.
The last Border Patrol agent fatally shot on duty was Brian Terry, who died in a shootout with bandits near the border in December 2010. The Border Patrol station in Naco, where the two agents shot Tuesday were stationed, was recently named after Terry.
Terry's shooting was later linked to the government's "Fast and Furious" gun-smuggling operation, which allowed people suspected of illegally buying guns for others to walk away from gun shops with weapons, rather than be arrested.
Authorities intended to track the guns into Mexico. Two rifles found at the scene of Terry's shooting were bought by a member of the gun-smuggling ring being investigated.
Critics of the operation say any shooting along the border now will raise the specter those illegal weapons are still being used in border violence.
"There's no way to know at this point how the agent was killed, but because of Operation Fast and Furious, we'll wonder for years if the guns used in any killing along the border were part of an ill-advised gun-walking strategy," Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley said in a written statement.
The Terry family said that the shooting was a "graphic reminder of the inherent dangers that threaten the safety of those who live and work near the border."
Authorities set up a checkpoint on a dirt road about seven miles southeast of Bisbee. A Border Patrol truck and another vehicle carrying two portable toilets were allowed to drive past the roadblock.
Agents at the checkpoint declined to comment and barred reporters from going further. Two helicopters from federal immigration agencies could be seen from a distance circling the area. And a fugitive-chase team could be seen staging on a roadside.
The area near the shooting is scattered with houses, trailers and ranchettes. Mesquite trees and creosote bushes dotted the landscape, and a mountain range stands nearby to the west.
The U.S. government has put thousands of sensors along the border that, when tripped, alert dispatchers that they should send agents to a particular location.
The agents were fired upon in a rugged hilly area about five miles north of the border as they responded to an alarm that was triggered on one of the sensors, said sheriff's spokeswoman Carol Capas. It is not known whether the agents returned fire, she said.
The wounded agent should be released from the hospital later Tuesday, said George McCubbin, president of the National Border Patrol Council, a union representing about 17,000 border patrol agents. The agents who were shot were on patrol with a third agent, who was not harmed, McCubbin said.
The Border Patrol said Ivie worked for the agency since January 2008 and grew up in Provo, Utah.
Ivie worked as an emergency medical technician before joining the Border Patrol, said his brother-in-law Todd Davis. Ivie was the youngest of five children, and often went camping, hunting and fishing with his family, Davis said.
Ivie's desire to help others, and his love of the outdoors and riding horses led him to the Border Patrol, where he served on the horse patrol unit, Davis said.
"Nick always tried to help others. He was a very selfless man with his family, with his friends, in anything he did," Davis said. "You know the risk but you pray this day would never happen."
Twenty-six Border Patrol agents have died in the line of duty since 2002. Bisbee-area residents expressed a mix of concern and frustration about the shooting, along with recognition that the border can be a dangerous place.
The region has seen its share of violence in recent years, including the Terry shooting and the slaying of a well-known rancher in 2010. That killing is, in part, credited with pushing Arizona lawmakers to pass a law that requires officers, when they stop someone, to check the immigration status of those they suspect are in the country illegally.
"There is no security on the border – none," said Edward L. Thomas, who owns rental properties in Bisbee.