PHOENIX (AP) - A Border Patrol agent killed on Tuesday was on a team pursuing a gang of bandits when he was killed, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has confirmed.
Napolitano said Friday that 40-year-old Brian A. Terry's elite team was tracking the "rip crew" when a gunbattle erupted in a remote southern Arizona canyon just north of the Mexican border.
Other agents arrested four suspects immediately after the shooting. A Border Patrol spokesman said Saturday that agents were still searching the rugged area for a fifth suspect.
"They were seeking to apprehend what's called a 'rip crew,' which is a name given to a crew that is organized to seek to rip off people who are drug mules or traversing the border illegally," she said. "That's why they were in that area."
Napolitano's remarks were the first official confirmation of what occurred during the late-night confrontation. Officials with the Border Patrol union has previously described the encounter.
Napolitano, a former Arizona governor, state attorney general and U.S. attorney, declined to provide details about the suspects or elaborate on the circumstances of Terry's death, citing the ongoing investigation. She toured parts of the border Friday and met with some of Terry's colleagues as part of a previously planned trip to Arizona.
She said she reworked her schedule to meet with agents and praise the work they have done to increase security along the border, where the number of agents is at an all-time high.
"Here's the message that I gave to our Border Patrol agents down there, which is that the work they are doing is producing very, very strong results," she said. "And you can see that in every metric. ... There is no doubt that that border, which I know very well having dealt with it since '93 when I became U.S. attorney here, is a very different place than it was five years ago, six years ago."
Arizona officials have criticized the federal government for failing to secure the border, with Gov. Jan Brewer and others saying crime and violence is spilling into Arizona.
But Napolitano cited FBI crime statistics showing that violent crime in Arizona, Texas, California and New Mexico has declined sharply in recent years. She said that agents have been, and still are, surging into the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector in Arizona and that the National Guard will continue to maintain a border presence.
"We're seizing more currency, we're seizing more drugs, we're seizing more guns, and so those numbers are going up," she said. "And the illegal-immigrant apprehensions are down, which, again, is a measure that overall illegal immigration is down. So the numbers that need to be going up are going up, and the numbers that need to be going down are going down, and substantially so."
The number of illegal-immigrant apprehensions in Arizona has plummeted from a high of 725,093 in fiscal 2000 to 219,318 in fiscal 2010, which ended on Sept. 30, Homeland Security statistics show.
Napolitano said she thinks the trend will continue.
"I believe that by the end of next year, we will have cut these numbers from 219,000 down to near 100,000," Napolitano said. "That would be my prediction. It may be a little more. It may be a little less. But something in that zone."
Increased numbers of Border Patrol agents and a poor economy are combining to cut the number of illegal immigrants crossing the border, she said.
Alan Bersin, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, accompanied Napolitano and concurred with Napolitano's characterization of the border as safer and more secure than it has been in years. But he cautioned that the stepped-up enforcement efforts and aggressive steps taken "to dismantle these entrenched smuggling and organized-crime groups" increase the danger for Border Patrol agents.