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Border Patrol's pepper-ball study might include El Centro next year

July 10, 2001|By ROBERT NOLAN, Special to this newspaper

WASHINGTON (MNS) — The U.S. Border Patrol in San Diego was recently issued 35 high-powered pepper-ball launchers as part of a one-year pilot program that could make its way to El Centro as soon as next year.

The air-powered launchers, which fire pellets of oleoresin capsicum, a natural form of pepper, can be fired accurately up to 100 feet and burst upon impact, causing severe irritation to victims' eyes, ears, throat and lungs. Numbness around the lips and intense coughing also can result from contact with the pepper.

"They look like something out of Buck Rogers," said San Diego Border Patrol spokesman James Jacques. "It's a whole different weapon within the use-of-force structure that all officers must follow."

INS officials and Border Patrol agents across the country have praised the device for its ability to defuse conflict situations without the use of lethal force. Currently, most Border Patrol agents must use pepper spray or batons that can only be applied at close range when confronted with violent situations.

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"Smaller and larger agents can yield an equal amount of force with this device, as opposed to a baton," said Jacques, who also praised the launchers for their ability to buy time in violent situations where agents are outnumbered. "They allow you to take the fight out of a person for a good 45 minutes."

The launchers function much like air-powered paintball guns used for recreational sport, but instead of leaving the scene with spattered paint and a slight welt, those fired upon have a burning sensation on the skin and are temporarily blinded.

"These agents have to defend themselves," said Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington. "We support the Border Patrol in the need to provide law and order in their regions."

Border Patrol agents will be required to pass an instructional course in the proper use of the device, and statistics are being kept on its use throughout the San Diego border area before the weapon is dispensed nationally next year.

"We really hope that the El Centro Border Patrol will have access to these launchers soon," said Dionicio Delgado of the El Centro Border Patrol, stressing the launcher's ability to give Border Patrol agents a nonlethal advantage over violent situations.

Although Delgado claimed that violence along the border has been on the decline due to new training and the effectiveness of current weapons, he said agents still would benefit from access to the pepper-ball launchers.

"We are always trying to go one step above in safely securing the border."

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