By Ivelisse Rivera and Ted Hesson
SAN JUAN/WASHINGTON (Reuters)—A U.S. federal agent was killed and two were wounded in a gun battle with suspected drug smugglers on Thursday during an inspection of a vessel believed to be carrying drugs off the coast of Puerto Rico, U.S. officials said.
"These are brave members of our Air and Marine Operations within U.S. Customs and Border Protection," said U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in testimony before a U.S. Senate committee.
"Their bravery and selfless service should be recognized."
Mayorkas, who was briefed on the situation Thursday morning, said the other agents "were gravely wounded."
The agents stopped the vessel, believed to be carrying controlled substances, 14 miles (22.5 km) off the coast of the Puerto Rican municipality of Cabo Rojo, CBP spokesperson Jeffrey Quinones told Reuters earlier.
Drug traffickers frequently use Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, as an entrance point for narcotics being smuggled from the Caribbean to the continental United States.
Puerto Rican police on Wednesday reported finding 38 kg (84 lbs) of what was believed to be cocaine, as well as the body of a man underneath a 19-foot (6-meter) boat abandoned on a beach in the western municipality of Isabela.
(Reporting by Ivelisse Rivera in San Juan and Ted Hesson in Washington, writing by Brian Ellsworth in Miami; Editing by David Gregorio and Richard Chang)