Sixty-four Border Patrol agents have been assaulted in the past three months along a 260-mile stretch of the Arizona-Mexico border — the country’s busiest illegal entry point — as the U.S. government continues its fight for “operational control” of the region.
As law-enforcement efforts have increased, so have the incidents of violence and the intensity of the attacks on the agents in the stretch known as the Tucson sector — which are averaging one assault every two days and are on pace to increase this year by 80 percent.
Border Patrol spokesman Andy Adame in Tucson said alien and drug smugglers have become increasingly aggressive in protecting their illicit cargoes of drugs and aliens.
“It is obvious the violence associated with smugglers has evolved from rock-throwing incidents to tactics intended to seriously maim or kill agents attempting to bring them to justice,” Mr. Adame said. “They’re starting to see some losses, and when you talk financial gain with smugglers and the loss of it, they’re going to react violently.”
The State Department this week issued a warning to Americans traveling into the northern border regions of Mexico, saying they should be “aware of the risk posed by the deteriorating security situation.” The warning said violent criminal activity along the border, including killings and kidnappings, was on the rise.
The increase in violence, some of it involving attacks by smugglers with automatic weapons, comes 10 months after the Department of Homeland Security initiated a law-enforcement program aimed at shutting down the Arizona border to alien and drug smugglers.
Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson, who heads border and transportation security, said at the time that the Arizona Border Control Initiative (ABC) would impair the ability of smugglers to operate, save lives and restore control to the Arizona border.
In October, Mr. Hutchinson noted what he called a sizable increase in border apprehensions under the initiative, saying the increase showed “sure and steady progress toward its goal of stemming illegal immigration into the southwest United States.”
But Mr. Hutchinson made no mention during the October press conference of the rising number of assaults on the agents involved in the program, who are assigned out of the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector.
T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council (NBPC), which represents all 11,000 Border Patrol non-supervisory agents, said increased enforcement efforts in the Tucson sector have emboldened smugglers to become more aggressive in challenging competitors and protecting themselves from detection and arrest.
“Anytime people are trying to hurt our agents, we are very concerned,” said Mr. Bonner, a 27-year Border Patrol veteran. “And as we put more pressure on these warring factions of smugglers, these gangsters are going to push back as they try to take over different parts of the industry.”
Mr. Bonner blamed the increased violence, in part, on what he called the “restrictive enforcement policies” of homeland security officials in Washington, saying agents often are prohibited from actively pursuing those involved. He also said part of the blame belongs to federal judges who are not fully prosecuting those accused of violent acts and to the Mexican government, which is not cooperating in targeting the offenders.
“It’s easy to throw rocks at the agents from across the border, and it would be nice to get a little cooperation from Mexico in controlling the situation,” he said. “If Americans standing on U.S. soil were throwing rocks and injuring Mexican police, law-enforcement authorities in this country would be much more actively involved in bringing them to justice.”
Mr. Bonner said if the situation is not dealt with quickly and effectively, the smugglers will have “every motivation” to continue the violence.
Michael Albon, spokesman for the NBPC’s Tucson office, said there was not only an increase in the instances of violence by the smugglers against agents in the sector, but against the aliens they are transporting and the traveling public.