Posted: 5/14/2002 11:47:40 AM EDT
May 13, 2002
Mexican soldiers in border crossings
By Steve Miller
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Heavily armed Mexican soldiers and police are crossing the U.S. border repeatedly, provoking charges from Capitol Hill that they are providing cover for drug smugglers and illegal immigrants. Top Stories
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Last year, there were 23 incursions documented by the U.S. Border Patrol, prompting Rep. Tom Tancredo to contact Mexican President Vicente Fox last week, asking for an end to these incidents.
The Mexican government denies Mr. Tancredo's accusation and maintains that Mexican military forces are working the same area as U.S. Border Patrol agents in fighting the illegal transport of drugs and people into this country.
"It's the other way around from what [Mr. Tancredo] says," said a Mexican government official, who asked not to be identified. "The troops are fighting against drugs. And sometimes they get lost in those areas ? there is no clear marking for the border."
Mr. Tancredo, Colorado Republican, visited the Arizona-Mexico border area in late April and learned that U.S. Border Patrol agents and park rangers were concerned about the activities of Mexican military officers, particularly along a 60-mile stretch of desert in Coronado National Forest.
"They are reporting that they see people coming through with guns. The concern is that there are people coming through with arms, M-16s, protecting drug carriers," said Mr. Tancredo, who has proposed using National Guard troops at border areas.
He added: "And they are not lost."
A drug-enforcement officer who oversees a policing project along the Arizona border said that such occurrences are "fairly common."
"Some of it is also inadvertent crossing," said Rocky Stone, special projects coordinator for the Arizona High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.
"But there are backpackers with big loads coming this way, and from time to time we hear about things happening," he said.
A Border Patrol agent from the area said the incursions "are nothing new. Sometimes they are innocent, other times they are very tense."
Mr. Tancredo ? who has been accused by some Hispanic leaders of being "anti-immigrant" ? last week sent a letter to Mr. Fox, challenging him to explain the reported border incidents.
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"Having just toured several sections of the border in question, it is clear that there is no chance whatsoever that the army units were simply lost, or unaware that they had crossed the border," Mr. Tancredo wrote in the letter.
The Mexican government has in the past said that military and police agents, like many illegal migrants trying to cross the vast border area, have become lost during patrols.
The letter in response to Mr. Tancredo from Mexico's ambassador to the United States, Juan Jose Bremer, said that "the excellent level of political dialogue that currently exists between the governments of Mexico and the United States has allowed every case of supposed unnoticed or accidental crossings of Mexican or U.S. personnel into the territory of the other country to fully identify the circumstances."
"These are dealt with on a local level," said a Mexican government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "Every time we have an authority crossing to the other side, both governments exchange views of what happened."
There have been several Mexican military and police incursions in the past two years that have angered Mr. Tancredo. In March, four Mexican soldiers carrying submachine guns and automatic rifles were detained when they ventured into the United States and encountered a Border Patrol agent. In October 2000, 10 similarly armed Mexican soldiers were reported to have fired on a Border Patrol air unit after taking a position on the U.S. side near Copper Canyon in California.
In March 2000, Border Patrol agents in El Paso, Texas, said that two Mexican army Humvees, reported by the Mexican government to be on an anti-drug mission, crossed the U.S. border. Two shots were fired from one of the Mexican vehicles, agents reported, but no one was hit. One vehicle retreated into Mexico, but the nine soldiers riding in the second vehicle were detained temporarily before being returned to their country.
"These situations can be very difficult," said Keith Weeks, a patrol agent and vice president of Local 1613 of the National Border Patrol Council in California. "We are outgunned in these instances. They have automatic rifles, and we have handguns." He said that military assistance for drug running in Mexico is "a definite possibility."
The area Mr. Tancredo examined on his recent visit is filled with encampments where illegal immigrants stay during their journey north. Several towns near the border on the U.S. side have street signs exclusively in Spanish, and border lines are absent in some areas.
But travelers in the area are able to see markers designating U.S. territory in many places, especially in Coronado National Forest.
For several years, both sides have advocated better marking of the 2,000-mile Southwest border, but with no result. In some areas, trampled fences are all that remain of the former border marking, while some areas in New Mexico and Texas have 6-foot-tall monuments as signposts.
But Johnny Williams, who heads field operations for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said that incursions along the border are inevitable given the tense situation. Some degree of corruption on both sides may be unavoidable.
"Vicente Fox has done a good job in rooting out corruption," Mr. Williams said. "I would not discount the fact that with thousands of officers on both sides, there may be someone in uniform doing something wrong."
I'm sure some of it is accidental but there is a lot of corruption down there. Police, soldiers are not paid what they should be and some of them start working with the smugglers.
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