The nation's border czar has concluded that Mexican soldiers who held a U.S. Border Patrol agent at gunpoint in August did so after bypassing a barbed-wire fence and other clearly visible barriers to cross into the United States, contradicting claims by the State Department and the Mexican government that the soldiers were simply lost.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Commissioner W. Ralph Basham, in a private letter to the National Border Patrol Council Local 2544 in Tucson, Ariz., described the Aug. 3 border incident as a "potential lethal encounter involving four Mexican armed military soldiers north of the international boundary."
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"There is a barbed-wire fence and new tactical infrastructure within sight that marks the borderline where the incident took place," Mr. Basham said. "Our uniformed agent, in a marked Border Patrol vehicle, identified himself in both English and Spanish."
Mr. Basham, who oversees the Border Patrol, said that while most incursions into the United States by Mexican military or law enforcement authorities take place in remote areas where the international border is poorly marked, "that was not the case in this particular incident."
He also described the tactics used against the agent, including the pointing of automatic rifles at him, as "unacceptable," adding that the incident had been "thoroughly documented by the Department of Homeland Security." He said the matter has since been sent to the State Department "with a request for diplomatic action."
At the time of the incident, the State Department described the incursion as a misunderstanding, saying the Mexican soldiers did not know where they were and needed to make certain that the detained agent was who he said he was. It was the same general statement the department had made in dozens of other suspected incursions by members of the Mexican military.
During a press briefing in Washington, State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said U.S. officials were aware of the incident and had brought it to the attention of the Mexican government, but that the encounter "stemmed from a momentary misunderstanding as to the exact location of the Mexican-U.S. border."
Border Patrol spokesman Lloyd Easterling at the time also noted that the incident, which took place on the Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation, occurred in an area where there were "no markers, at least not easily found." He said, "There's no line painted in the sand or anything like that."
Ricardo Alday, a spokesman at the Mexican Embassy in Washington, also said at the time that Mexico and the U.S. were 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.
The unidentified Border Patrol agent was detained at gunpoint for several minutes by members of the Mexican military who crossed the border into Arizona about 85 miles southwest of Tucson. The soldiers returned to Mexico without incident when backup agents responded to assist.
It was not clear 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.
Local 2544 President Edward "Bud" Tuffly II said the four Mexican military soldiers crossed into the United States after passing a barbed-wire fence and vehicle barriers that Homeland Security had erected in the area. He also said the agent was in full uniform and was driving a fully marked Border Patrol vehicle, complete with red and blue lights, large green stripes down the side and the large words "Border Patrol" on the sides and the rear of the vehicle.
"A reasonable person would conclude that the soldiers knew exactly at whom they were pointing their rifles," Mr. Tuffly said. "Had the agent panicked and fired a shot or attempted to flee in his vehicle, there is little doubt the Mexican soldiers would have opened fire."
Mr. Tuffly, a veteran Border Patrol agent, called the State Department's description of the incident "unfortunate," noting that during past incursions, the Mexican government denied it had soldiers in the area or blamed impostors, even when military Humvees were involved.
"Time after time they have gotten away with these incursions and time after time our government has not taken a forceful stand against them," he said.
Mr. Basham's letter was sent Sept. 25 to Mr. Tuffly in response to an Aug. 23 letter by the Local 2544 president to President Bush asking that he put an end to Mexican military incursions that have put Border Patrol agents at risk of being injured or killed.
"It is disgraceful that Border Patrol agents are put in harm's way and our government doesn't do everything reasonably within its power to protect us from marauding Mexican soldiers and others," Mr. Tuffly wrote. "Without a forceful response to these illegal incursions, an agent will eventually be seriously wounded or killed. It is only a matter of time."
In his letter, Mr. Basham said "dialogue with the government of Mexico" had been initiated "to prevent a recurrence of this type of incident." He said CBP was committed to "preventing incursions into the United States by any entity, whether unintentional or by those who enter with criminal intent."
"Securing our borders is a top priority and our Border Patrol agents are precious resources that are essential in gaining greater levels of operational control along our border with Mexico," Mr. Basham said, vowing to Mr. Tuffly to "make it a priority to speak again with the leadership at the Department of State and the Mexican government on this issue."
The NBPC, staffed by current and retired Border Patrol agents, represents all of the agency's 14,000 nonsupervisory agents and support staff. Mr. Tuffly's local is the union's largest, with about 3,000 members.