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Incursions of border by cops, troops rising

EL PASO, Texas -- Unauthorized border crossings by Mexican authorities such as soldiers and police spiked more than threefold in 2008, according to an annual report the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency sought to keep secret.

Now that the report is public, the result of a lawsuit by a public-interest group, the agency is attempting to downplay its significance.

"BorderStat Violence, FY 2008 Year in Review" says that 147 foreign government incursions occurred in 2008, a 359 percent increase from the previous year. Only 216 incursions were tallied in the previous nine years.

"There are a lot of places out there where the border isn't clearly marked," said Lloyd Easterling, spokesman for CPB. He said even accidental aircraft crossings from Canada were considered incursions.

Mexican authorities may come a few feet into the United States and be spotted by CBP surveillance systems, Mr. Easterling said. "You may see people moving back and forth across the border. You know, they're 50 or 100 feet inside, and they go right back out."

Mr. Easterling said he had no proof of any Mexican military crossings.

"Our agents out there are seeing people dressed up and acting in a military-like fashion," he said. "Whether they're in any kind of official uniform or something they bought that may look like fatigues ... I don't know," he said.

Investments in technology and manpower have enabled CBP to get more accurate numbers, Mr. Easterling said, contributing to the jump cited in the report.

Chris Farrell, director of research for Washington-based Judicial Watch, interprets the data differently, claiming it reflects a serious deterioration in border security just over the bridge from El Paso, Texas.

"On the Mexican side of the border, all hell is breaking loose. That's why [Ciudad] Juarez is under military occupation right now," Mr. Farrell said.

"To discount this report trivializes a very grave warning," said Mr. Farrell, whose organization won the report's release by filing a lawsuit to force CBP to honor a Freedom of Information Act request for a copy.

The Mexican military has moved into Juarez in an attempt to stop thousands of killings and kidnappings by rival crime syndicates that are battling for control of lucrative smuggling routes into the United States.

Mr. Farrell said he doubts the increase in border incursions cited in the report can be attributed entirely to better surveillance technology.

Mexican drug cartels, he said, pay corrupt officials to create diversions along the border to open other areas for smugglers.

"Hypothetically, improved technology might lead to better reporting," Mr. Farrell said. "There's probably a percentage of truth in that, but it's highly speculative."

The CBP report also showed a jump in violence against U.S. border personnel, a trend that Mr. Easterling said is troubling.

Violence against CBP officers and agents is up 167 percent at ports of entry and 23 percent outside them, the report said.

"When we have people out there assaulting our agents, it is unacceptable," he said.

In formerly hot sectors such as Yuma, Ariz. - where CBP agent Luis Aguilar was run over and killed by a smuggler last year - assaults were down 56 percent.

"At one point, one in three agents on shift would be assaulted on [a given] day," Mr. Easterling said. "With rocks, or dirt clods or bottles, sticks, gunfire, what have you."

But in other sectors, such as San Diego, assaults on officers jumped 46 percent. Officers are now being equipped with body armor, helmets, shields and "war wagons" that have cages over the windows.

"In ... areas where smugglers have operated with impunity for several years, they're trying to fight back to get us to leave the area," Mr. Easterling said.

"But we're continuing to go back to these places to let them know we're resolute. We're going to get our job done. They don't like that," he said.

The agency also reported a 25 percent drop in apprehensions of illegal border-jumpers for the year, a statistic that gauges migrants sneaking into the U.S. to find jobs.

T.J. Bonner, a 27-year Border Patrol veteran, attributes the drop in illegal border crossings to the recession.

"Our economy is doing so poorly, we're bleeding jobs, and some of those jobs were held by illegal aliens," said Mr. Bonner, who is president of the National Border Patrol Council, a union that represents all non-supervisory agents.

Mr. Bonner's organization has long argued that if illegal migrants were blocked from gaining employment in the United States, fewer would come. That, in turn, would allow the Border Patrol to focus on more important work, such as stopping drug shipments, criminals and potential terrorists.

"Our efficiency in apprehending drugs coming across has shot up dramatically. We've seen a 50 percent increase in drug seizures," Mr. Bonner said.

He also said the problem of border violence and incursions by Mexican authorities is getting worse.

"The violence along the border is much like a tube of toothpaste: Squeeze in one part, it bulges out in another. This is one of the reasons numbers have dropped in Yuma and jumped in San Diego, Mr. Bonner said.

"It's not a big leap to go from shaking people down for $100 at a bogus traffic stop to turning a blind eye to shipments of drugs, to taking it one step further and guarding those shipments of drugs," Mr. Bonner said. "That's what's happening with a lot of these incursions, they [corrupt Mexican military and police] are serving as escorts for loads of drugs into the United States."

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