- The Washington Times - Monday, August 11, 2008

A Republican congressman who played a key role in the government’s efforts to build a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border says the Mexican military’s holding of a U.S. Border Patrol agent at gunpoint last week “raises serious questions” about Mexico’s presence and activities in the area.

“The fact that the Mexican military is operating in such close proximity to the border, without any identifiable purpose, calls into question its activities and raises concerns about the vulnerability of our southern land border,” Rep. Duncan Hunter of California said in a letter Friday to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff

“When considering the frequency of incursions and the threat these encounters pose to our Border Patrol agents, it is critical that we take the necessary steps to ensure that Mexican military and law-enforcement personnel do not cross into the U.S. without our knowledge or consent,” he said.

The letter was in response to an incident Aug. 3 during which a Border Patrol agent was held at gunpoint by members of the Mexican military who had crossed the border into Arizona about 85 miles southwest of Tucson. The soldiers returned to Mexico without incident when backup agents responded to assist.

The agent was not identified.

It is not clear what the soldiers were doing in the United States, although U.S. law-enforcement authorities have long said that current and former Mexican military personnel have been hired to protect drug and migrant smugglers.

But officials at the State Department and the Border Patrol in Washington described the incursion as a “momentary misunderstanding,” saying the Mexican soldiers did not know where they were and needed to make certain that the agent was who he said he was - although rank-and-file Border Patrol agents in Arizona said he was dressed in uniform and was driving a well-marked, white-and-green agency vehicle.

The incident occurred on the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation, a major alien and drug-smuggling corridor.

Veteran Border Patrol agent Edward “Bud” Tuffly II, who heads the Tucson office of Local 2544 of the National Border Patrol Council, said incursions by the Mexican military have been “going on for years.” He said, “It is fortunate that this incident didn’t end in a very ugly gunfight,” he said.

Mr. Tuffly said the Mexican military personnel who crossed into the United States last week did so after passing vehicle barriers that have been erected by Homeland Security along the border. He said they had to know where they were.

“Anyone who doesn’t know that still believes in the tooth fairy,” he said.

Mr. Hunter noted there have been 43 reported Mexican military incursions on the border in the past 10 months and more than 200 since 2006. In the letter, he asked what action the Homeland Security and State departments were taking “to address the incursion… and limit or prevent the likelihood of similar incidents in the future.”

He also noted that under the Secure Fence Act passed in 2006, construction of double-layered border security fencing was required from Calexico, Calif., to Douglas, Ariz., by May 30, 2008. He said that if Homeland Security had completed that segment of fence, rather than avoiding the deadline and supporting a revision in the law, the recent incursion on the Arizona border would not have occurred.

“Reoccurring confrontations with Mexican soldiers, much like the drug smugglers and illegal immigrants that attempt to cross into the U.S. through Mexico each day, further illustrate why fencing and other infrastructure remains so important to the security and enforcement of our border,” he said.

“Implementing infrastructure in problematic regions of the border, including those prone to military incursions, will serve to clearly identify our shared land boundary with Mexico, better protect our Border Patrol agents and help prevent illegal border crossings.”

The NBPC represents all nonsupervisory personnel among the agency’s 16,000 agents and has been concerned about a dramatic increase of violence along the U.S.-Mexico border - much of which is aimed at Border Patrol agents. There were more than 200 assaults against Border Patrol agents in the Tucson sector from Oct. 1, 2007, to June 30. The sector is responsible for 262 miles of the 1,952-mile U.S.-Mexico border.

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