border wall construction
© AP Photo/Eric Gay/ File
In this Nov. 7, 2019, file photo, the first panels of levee border wall are seen at a construction site along the U.S.-Mexico border, in Donna, Texas.
A Border Patrol agent was involved in a shooting last week with a smuggler who was posing as part of the construction crews working on President Trump's border wall in Arizona, The Washington Times has learned.

Nobody was reported injured. Although one driver was caught, another smuggler who was part of the shootout managed to escape back into Mexico. Nearly 20 illegal immigrants were discovered in the two trucks they were driving.

It was the latest incident of smuggling cartels using the tumult of wall construction to try to sneak people or drugs into the U.S.

President Trump has ordered the border to be shut down to noncommercial traffic in an effort to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. While overall illegal border crossings are down, they have not halted entirely, according to a Times review of smuggling cases that shows cartels are still trying to move medium-sized groups.

The shootout Wednesday capped off an incident that began when agents noticed two older-model Ford F-250 pickup trucks with logos reading "SWC Southwest Valley Constructors," which raised suspicion after a string of incidents over the past month, according to court documents that detailed the arrest.

SWC is the name of the firm contracted to build fencing in the Tucson sector, but the company told agents their fleet used only newer-model F-250s.

Agents followed the two trucks, which then split up.

One led agents on a slow-speed chase through Douglas. The driver obeyed all traffic laws and stopped only after an agent used his vehicle to block the road. Fifteen illegal immigrants were inside that truck, according to court documents.

The other Ford truck led agents on a high-speed chase east along the border. At one point, it smashed into an agent's vehicle, backed up and took off again.

After the truck eventually stopped, shots were fired, according to the court filings.

The driver ran into Mexico and left his cargo of four illegal immigrants inside the truck.

"A Border Patrol Agent from the Tucson Sector was involved in a failure to yield incident and agent involved shooting near Douglas, Arizona," Rob Daniels, a Customs and Border Protection spokesman, said in a statement to The Washington Times. "No injuries were reported at the time of the incident. An investigation is underway."

Mr. Daniels said the FBI is leading the probe — standard procedure in shootings involving a border agent.

The Washington Times first reported in October that smugglers were using wall construction activity along the border as cover to sneak in illegal immigrants.

The Times has now cataloged at least eight incidents since September.

Most have been in California, and a couple of them now have been in Arizona.

In some cases, the smugglers have adopted the guise of construction workers, with trucks decked out to try to match those of companies working on the wall. At other times, agents find the illegal immigrants wearing construction reflector vests, which they use to blend in as they breach the wall and walk to meet their drivers for pickup and transport deeper into the U.S.

Still other incidents involve construction workers keeping an eye out for illegal immigrants and reporting them to the Border Patrol. In some places, legitimate construction traffic is issued a marker that is supposed to distinguish them from other border traffic.

Charged in last week's incident is Gerardo Siqueiros-Molina, a Mexican who agents said was paying $1,000 to be smuggled to Tucson.

"The smugglers did not have a driver for his vehicle, so the smugglers asked him to drive and the smugglers would give him a $600 credit towards his smuggling fee," agent John O'Connor wrote in the court complaint.

The smugglers gave Mr. Siqueiros-Molina a radio and instructions to follow the other F-250, driven by a man identified as "Jota Jota," or Javier, to a stash house.

Mr. O'Connor said "Jota Jota" is the man involved in the gunfight who eluded agents after smashing his truck into the Border Patrol vehicle.

He didn't say what the migrants other than Mr. Siqueiros-Molina paid to be smuggled into the U.S., but The Times' database of smuggling cases shows a wide range of payments in other incidents during the coronavirus outbreak.

One Mexican man nabbed in California on March 21 said he, like Mr. Siqueiros-Molina, was to pay $1,000. Yet two other Mexicans and one Chinese man nabbed three days earlier in California paid $10,000 apiece.

When agents stopped a truck at a highway checkpoint in southern Texas on March 27, they found 36 illegal immigrants penned inside and measured the temperature at 103 degrees.

Among those migrants were a Guatemalan and Honduran who paid $10,000 each and a Salvadoran who paid $15,000.