- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 5, 2004

Smugglers of drugs and aliens, desperate to protect their illicit cargoes, have reacted with increased violence against U.S. Border Patrol agents involved in a new law-enforcement initiative aimed at gaining “operational control” of the Arizona-Mexico border.

Eighty-nine agents have been assaulted so far this year in an escalating series of attacks by the smugglers — some shot at with automatic weapons, while others were attacked with block-sized rocks or had their vehicles rammed by armed smugglers, Border Patrol Chief David V. Aguilar said yesterday.

Some suspected smugglers, known as “coyotes,” threw rocks at a Border Patrol helicopter last week in an unsuccessful attempt to disable the aircraft, said Chief Aguilar, who formerly headed the agency’s Tucson sector.

Chief Aguilar believes the smugglers are striking out because they are beginning to suffer financial losses as a result of the border enforcement program, known as the Arizona Border Control Initiative, although incidents of violence have increased this year all along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“One of the dynamics of this new border initiative is to expand into areas that we’ve not worked in the recent past and as we take back those areas, there is a reluctance on the part of the coyotes to give up the territory,” the chief said.

“Ironically, we see the increase in violence as a measure of achievement,” he said. “As we gain more ground, the incidents of violence will likely increase until we become an impediment to their operation, until we become an overwhelming force.”

Assaults against Border Patrol agents so far this year are coming at a rate of one every 2 days. Last year, the Border Patrol registered 115 attacks on agents.

Arizona is the busiest illegal entry point along the 1,940-mile U.S.-Mexico border. More than 400,000 illegal aliens were arrested in that state last year, about 1,100 a day.

In May, the government began a $10 million initiative to detect, arrest and deter all cross-border illicit trafficking; significantly reduce the ability of alien and drug smugglers to operate along the Southwest border; and put a stop to the rising rate of violent crime throughout Arizona.

The initiative also seeks to confront and confound terrorists who might use the Southwest border to gain entry to the United States.

The smuggling of aliens across the Arizona desert has spawned a lucrative and violent industry that charges between $1,500 and $2,000 a person to be guided into the United States. Millions of dollars in drugs crosses each year into Arizona from Mexico, including marijuana, cocaine and heroin.

On Tuesday, Border Patrol agents in Nogales, Ariz., were shot at by drug smugglers while attempting to arrest them and seize their drugs.

Yesterday, other agents were ambushed by suspected smugglers after they had fled back into Mexico and waited in hiding for the agents to approach the border. The smugglers fired two bursts of multiple rounds at the agents from an automatic weapon from across the border. None of the agents was hurt.

In the two incidents, agents seized 1,900 pounds of marijuana, valued at more than $1.4 million. Shortly after the smugglers fled into Mexico, the Border Patrol in Nogales notified Mexican authorities, who later found the truck and confiscated more than 1,600 pounds of marijuana.

Chief Aguilar said efforts are under way within the agency to ensure that agents along the U.S.-Mexico border are properly equipped and have the necessary intelligence data in order to deal with the escalating violence.

But despite the violence, he said the Border Patrol would continue to expand its operations, augmented by increased air and land patrols, including unmanned aerial vehicles, known as UAVs, “until we establish ourselves as the overwhelming force and we no longer see the confrontations.”

The chief noted that the Arizona Border Control Initiative builds on the combined assets of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which includes the Border Patrol, the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Transportation Security Administration, Interior Department and other federal law-enforcement agencies, including the tribal police at the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation on the Arizona-Mexico border.

Dozens of state and local police and prosecutors, including the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona and the Arizona Department of Public Safety, are involved, he said. Another key provision of the program is an increase in the capacity of detention and removal facilities along the Southwestern border.

A total of 260 additional Border Patrol agents will be deployed along the agency’s Tucson sector — about 260 miles of international border. The manpower increase supplements the 2,000 agents already on patrol in the Tucson sector.

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