Mexican drug run thwarted at border

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U.S. law-enforcement authorities confronted several men in Mexican military uniforms and a camouflaged Humvee with .50-caliber machine guns who had crossed into Texas with suspected drug smugglers 50 miles southeast of El Paso, forcing an armed standoff along the Rio Grande, says a Texas sheriff.

Hudspeth County, Texas, Sheriff Arvin West said the incident began at 2:19 p.m. Monday when his deputies — working as part of an anti-drug smuggling enforcement initiative known as “Operation Linebacker” — pursued three SUVs spotted driving north from a border area along the Rio Grande near Interstate 10.

Sheriff West said the pursuit, which began near Sierra Blanca, Texas, ended for one of the vehicles when it blew out a tire and the driver fled. He said deputies seized 1,400 pounds of marijuana from that vehicle.

As the southbound chase continued for the other two SUVs, he said the deputies and at least two Texas Department of Public Safety troopers who had joined in the pursuit encountered several men on the U.S. side of the border dressed in what he described as battle dress uniforms (BDUs). He said they “appeared to be soldiers, in a Humvee vehicle with what appeared to the officers as being .50-caliber machine guns.”

Sheriff West said one of the vehicles made it into Mexico, but the other got stuck in the river, where a group of men in civilian clothes offloaded what appeared to be bundles of marijuana. He said the truck was then set ablaze by the “soldiers.”

No shots were fired and no injuries were reported during what amounted to an armed standoff at the border.

T.J. Bonner, a veteran Border Patrol agent and president of the National Border Patrol Council, yesterday called the incident “just another example of what we have been saying all along: This is a serious problem and it’s not going to go away.

“The U.S. government has got to put its foot down and take decisive action,” said Mr. Bonner, whose union represents all 10,000 of the agency’s non-supervisory personnel. “It would be nice if the Mexican government would address the problem, but it won’t even admit there is one.”

In November, the U.S. Border Patrol chased a dump truck full of marijuana in the same area when it also got stuck in the river seeking to return to Mexico. While Border Patrol agents sought to unload 3 tons of marijuana, the driver — who had fled — returned with a heavily armed group of men wearing Mexican military uniforms and carrying military-style weapons. The soldiers backed the agents away and bulldozed the truck back into Mexico.

Last week, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff dismissed reports of possible Mexican military incursions into the United States as “overblown” and “scare tactics.” He said those involved in the crossings may have been dressed in military uniforms, “but they are just criminals, they are not military but they are wearing camouflage so someone may assume they are military.”

Mr. Chertoff also said a significant number of 216 confirmed incursions since 1996 were “innocent,” noting that police and military units in Mexico pursuing criminals “may step across the border because they do not know exactly where the line is.”

Law-enforcement officials yesterday noted that the Texas-Mexico border is clearly marked by the Rio Grande.

Yesterday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) spokeswoman Kristi M. Clemens said the Border Patrol was notified of possible narcotics smuggling by the sheriff’s office involving suspects dressed in military-style uniforms and using military-style equipment. She said the incident is under investigation.

Ms. Clemens also said the Bush administration is discussing the matter with the government of Mexico and is asking for a thorough investigation and response.

Rafael Laveaga, spokesman for the Mexican Embassy in Washington, yesterday said that country’s Ministry of Defense has ordered an investigation of the incident, but “already has informed us they do not have the type of vehicles and heavy weapons described by the sheriff” in the area.

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