Border patrol agent held at gunpoint

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A U.S. Border Patrol agent was held at gunpoint Sunday night by members of the Mexican military who had crossed the border into Arizona, but the soldiers returned to Mexico without incident when backup agents responded to assist.

Agents assigned to the Border Patrol station at Ajo, Ariz., said the Mexican soldiers crossed the international border in an isolated area about 100 miles southwest of Tucson and pointed rifles at the agent, who was not identified.

It was unclear what the soldiers were doing in the United States, but U.S. law enforcement authorities have long said that current and former Mexican military personnel have been hired to protect drug and migrant smugglers.

“Unfortunately, this sort of behavior by Mexican military personnel has been going on for years,” union Local 2544 of the National Border Patrol Council (NBPC) said on its Web page. “They are never held accountable, and the United States government will undoubtedly brush this off as another case of ‘Oh well, they didn’t know they were in the United States.’

“It is fortunate that this incident didn’t end in a very ugly gunfight,” said the local’s posting.

The NBPC represents all nonsupervisory personnel among the agency’s 16,000 agents.

Border Patrol spokesman Michael Friel did not return calls for comment Tuesday.

State Department spokeswoman Nicole Thompson said Tuesday that the department had no information on the incident, and referred further questions to the Border Patrol. “It is not an incident that we are aware of,” she said.

Ricardo Alday, spokesman at the Mexican Embassy in Washington, said Tuesday that Mexico and the United States are engaged in “an all-out struggle to deter criminal organizations from operating on both sides of our common border.”

“Law enforcement operations have led, from time to time, to innocent incursions by both U.S. and Mexican law enforcement personnel and military units into the territory of both nations, and in particular along non-demarcated areas of our border,” he said.

“We always try to solve these incidents in a cooperative fashion, and as acknowledged by the Border Patrol, this was the case in the episode at Ajo,” he said.

Since 1996, there have been more than 200 confirmed incursions by the Mexican military into the United States.

Local 2544, the largest in the NBPC, is headed by veteran Border Patrol agent Edward “Bud” Tuffly II. He noted on the Web page that the local’s leadership would “withhold further comment on this incident until we see how our leaders handle it.”

“We don’t have much confidence in most of them,” the local’s posting said.

Sunday night’s incident bears similarities to other incursions by armed men in Mexican military gear in recent years:

cThe incident occurred in the same area where heavily armed Mexican soldiers riding in a Humvee shot at a Border Patrol agent in 2002. A .50-caliber bullet ripped through the agent’s rear window as he sped away.

Mexican officials denied at the time that the shooters were Mexican soldiers, saying they were criminals using military uniforms. It is a position they steadfastly have maintained.

But the agent who reported encountering the gunfire was certain he saw soldiers, said Mr. Tuffly. He said at the time that the agent was able to identify their attire “down to a T, and it matched exactly what they [Mexican soldiers] wear.”

That purported incursion began after a Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation police ranger reported being chased by men in a Humvee.

cA year ago, U.S. law enforcement authorities were confronted by gunfire from automatic weapons as they chased and caught a drug-smuggling suspect in Texas trying to flee back into Mexico, the Hudspeth County (Texas) Sheriff’s Office said.

No one was hurt in that incident, and the gunmen were not identified, although the area has been the scene of similar incidents over several months, including a confrontation in January 2007, when heavily armed men in Mexican military uniforms fired on Texas officers with a .50-caliber machine gun mounted on a camouflaged Humvee.

The men were identified at the time by Hudspeth County Sheriff Arvin West as “soldiers.”

In that incident, Hudspeth County deputies pursued three sport utility vehicles back to Mexico after spotting them driving north from the Rio Grande. The pursuit ended on the U.S. side of the border when the deputies encountered 10 heavily armed men in what they described as battle-dress uniforms.

At that time, deputies found 1,400 pounds of marijuana in one of the vehicles abandoned after it blew a tire early in the pursuit. Another made it into Mexico and a third got stuck in the Rio Grande and was burned by the “soldiers” after it was unloaded.

cIn November 2007, the Border Patrol chased a dump truck full of marijuana in the same area when it also got stuck in the river while trying to return to Mexico. While 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.

“Nothing was ever done,” Local 2544 said. “Nobody was ever held accountable. Particularly galling is the fact that the Mexican military often pulls these stunts in Humvees donated to them by the American taxpayers. We note that Border Patrol agents have historically driven worn-out, junk vehicles.”

A coalition of Texas border sheriffs has demanded that the U.S. and Mexican governments investigate incursions into the United States by heavily armed drug escorts dressed in Mexican military uniforms “before someone gets killed.”

Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez Jr. of Zapata County, Texas, who founded the coalition, said a growing number of suspected incursions and violence aimed at the area’s law enforcement officers is making the border “a pretty dangerous place.”

Sheriff Gonzalez said three of his deputies in 2006 spotted 25 men dressed in military uniforms in the U.S. during a late-night patrol. He said the men marched two abreast and carried duffel bags and automatic weapons, and that his “outmanned and outgunned deputies” were forced to retreat.

“The only thing you can do in that kind of situation is seek cover,” Sheriff Gonzalez said. “I’m not going to lose someone in an unfair fight.”

The State Department on Tuesday also confirmed a separate case in which two California police officers were arrested at the border Friday on charges of attempting to smuggle guns, ammunition and training materials into Mexico.

A Mexican court is expected to decide Wednesday whether the two Monterey County officers will remain in jail or be released on bail.

The U.S. Consulate in Tijuana said Mexico holds the largest population of U.S. prisoners outside the United States.

  • David R. Sands contributed to this report.
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