chertoff STATES that the southern border is "unsafe" for CIVILIANS
U.S. bracing for smuggling rings to retaliate
DAVE MONTGOMERY and MARIA RECIO
Star-Telegram Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- The U.S. government is bracing for increased violence against Border Patrol agents as Mexican smuggling rings retaliate against a high-profile crackdown by federal law enforcement, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Wednesday.
While declining to elaborate on reports that smugglers may be planning contract-style hits on Border Patrol agents, Chertoff acknowledged "an uptick in violence" against the federal officers after months of intensified enforcement aimed at crushing immigrant- and drug-smuggling rings.
"I do think we have to be prepared for the fact that as we press hard on these criminal organizations, some of them will want to fight back," Chertoff told reporters during a media breakfast. But "we want to make it very clear that ... will not cause us to back off."
Chertoff also reiterated that Mexican drug wars and other violence have made parts of the U.S.-Mexican border unsafe. Hundreds have been killed in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico -- across the Rio Grande from Laredo -- as a result of a months-long war between drug cartels.
"When civilians go down to the border, they are taking a huge chance with their own lives," Chertoff said.
U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, has a memento from his recent trip to the border: a shell casing. Culberson, visiting Laredo this month with other members of the Texas congressional delegation and Chertoff, picked up a spent AK-47 shell casing on the international bridge.
Agents told him that two warring drug gangs had a shootout on the bridge, Culberson said. "It's a regular occurrence," he said.
"The trip brought home to all of us that the war on terror is right in our back yard," Culberson told reporters during a teleconference Wednesday. "You don't have to go to Baghdad" to find terrorist activity, he said.
Likening northern Mexico to Colombia, Culberson said he got information from local sheriffs about narco-terrorist training camps along the border and cited one near Matamoros. Asked whether the camps are linked to al Qaeda or are drug-related, Culberson said, "It is not all drug-related," but the "overwhelming majority" of the participants are involved in drug smuggling.
Also in the teleconference were Republican Reps. Tom DeLay of Sugar Land, John Carter of Round Rock, Kevin Brady of The Woodlands and Michael Burgess of Flower Mound, and Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar of Laredo.
DeLay called illegal immigration a "clear and present danger to the security of the United States."
Burgess said, "I was encouraged to hear Chertoff say we've lost credibility with the American people" because that acknowledgment has led to "a commitment to get back on track."
Concern over the safety of Border Patrol agents intensified last week after published reports about a confidential Dec. 21 Homeland Security memo that smugglers planned to dispatch members of the notorious Mara Salvatrucha gang to the United States to execute agents.
Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, has spread from Central America into the United States and is thought to operate in more than 30 states, including Texas. MS-13 is one of several gangs used as enforcers by Mexico's Federation drug cartel in its war against the Gulf Cartel.
Todd Fraser, a spokesman at the Border Patrol's Washington headquarters, confirmed that the memo was circulated as an "alert" to field agents after the threats emerged.
"As of right now, we're still gathering information to find out if it was a reliable source or not," Fraser said. "You'd rather be on the safe side and have your agents have the most up-to-date information possible."
The memo said unidentified "alien smugglers" are angry about increased border security and believe that "the best way to deal with U.S. Border Patrol agents is to hire a group of contract killers," according to published reports.
But T.J. Bonner, a San Diego-based agent and president of the National Border Patrol Council, a union that represents 10,500 agents, said an earlier confidential alert said drug gangs were behind the alleged plots.
"When we seize a couple of tons of drugs that get destroyed, they're out the money," Bonner said.
The U.S. crackdown, which includes the 6-month-old Operation Black Jack, has targeted all criminal elements along the border. Since its creation in March 2003, Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement has hit human-smuggling organizations hard, resulting in 5,460 arrests and 2,358 convictions.
This month, Immigration and Customs agents in El Paso arrested the heads of two major smuggling organizations that authorities say transported more than 600 immigrants from the El Paso area to Dallas and beyond over the past two years. The organizations generated more than $1.6 million in smuggling fees, Immigration and Customs officials said.
Assaults on Border Patrol agents along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexican border have increased from 349 in 2004 to 673 in 2005. The attacks include shooting attempts, rock throwings, attempts to run over agents with cars and other assaults.
An officer in San Diego came under investigation recently after he fired at an assailant preparing to hurl a rock at the agent, Fraser said. The assailant escaped to Mexico and may have died in a hospital, according to unconfirmed reports. San Diego police are still investigating.
"The level of violence is definitely escalating. We're seeing more shots fired at our agents," Bonner said. "It's not hard to figure out who we are. We're the guys in the green uniform in the vehicles that say Border Patrol.
"We're sitting ducks out there."
IN THE KNOW
Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13
The gang planted its U.S. roots in the mid-1980s when Central American refugees from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala fled to the United States to escape civil wars and death squads. The first wave settled in Los Angeles, banding together to protect themselves from established U.S. gangs.
Law enforcement and media reports offer varying accounts on the origin of the gang's name. According to one account in the El Paso Times, mara refers to group, Salva refers to El Salvador and trucha is Spanish slang for "watch out." "MS-13" stems from 13th Street in Los Angeles.
U.S., Salvadoran and Honduran officials say MS-13 has become increasingly violent, carrying out beheadings and grenade attacks in Central America and hacking their enemies with machetes in cities along the U.S. East Coast. There are new concerns that Mexican smugglers might hire MS-13 members as assassins.
The FBI has begun a national campaign to coordinate the fight against MS-13 and other violent gangs, and intelligence indicates that MS-13 has spread its operations to more than 30 states, including Texas.