- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 31, 2005

SIERRA VISTA, Ariz. — The U.S. Border Patrol has begun a new community-based program called “Operation Be Alert,” involving a series of highway billboards calling on citizens to report alien and drug smugglers.

Border Patrol spokesman Rob Daniels said the operation began last week with the placement of five informational billboards along major highways here, aimed at providing what he called “another line of communication between the citizens of Arizona and the Border Patrol.”

The billboards direct citizens to contact Border Patrol field offices about suspicious activity using the toll-free telephone number, 1-877/USBP HELP (872-7435), which also will be placed on all Border Patrol vehicles.

“We are looking forward to hearing from the public,” said Michael C. Nicely, chief of the agency’s Tucson sector, which includes 260 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. “The information we receive will assist us with the identification and dismantling of smuggling organizations operating in the southern Arizona region.”

Border Patrol officials said they did not time the project to coincide with this weekend’s “Minuteman Project,” when more than 1,000 volunteers will begin patrolling the border and notifying federal agents of illegal border crossers. The group is holding a monthlong vigil to protest the failure of Congress and the Bush administration to adequately enforce immigration laws.

More than 1.15 million illegal aliens were apprehended last year by the Border Patrol while attempting to enter the United States. Nearly 40 percent of them were detained by agents in the Tucson sector, which has become the nation’s most commonly used alien- and drug-smuggling corridor.

The Tucson sector has been the site of a rash of assaults involving agents, with more than 100 recorded since Oct. 1, including nine shootings. The sector includes the border stations at the Arizona cities of Douglas, Naco and Nogales, where agents are being assaulted at a rate of two every three days — more than doubling last year’s total.

Snipers working as “lookouts” for drug traffickers and illegal-alien smugglers also have targeted the agents from vantage points across the U.S.-Mexico border. Agents assigned to the Douglas station in Arizona’s southeastern corner, one of the nation’s busiest illegal-entry points, have been fired at on at least six occasions, and while none of the officers was injured, several reported near-misses. Agency officials think the assaults are directly tied to alien and drug smugglers.

The rise in assaults comes as the Bush administration has decided not to hire the 2,000 new Border Patrol agents authorized for each of the next five years in the intelligence-overhaul bill President Bush signed into law in December. Most of those agents would have been assigned to the Tucson sector.

Instead, Mr. Bush sought to fund an increase of only 210 agents for the new fiscal year, although the Senate has since voted for funding to hire more than 2,000 new agents — although budget discussions are continuing.