The chief of the U.S. Border Patrol said Tuesday that his agents have a tough time ousting armed drug cartel spotters from the tops of U.S. mountains because the rules of engagement constrain them.
For years, cartels have stationed spotters on U.S. territory to help track American border efforts and to guide smugglers around roadblocks and past where agents are stationed. But in recent months, those spotters have gotten more attention as Congress prepares to debate an immigration legalization bill.
“Why don’t we take those people out?” said Sen. Ron Johnson, Wisconsin Republican.
Sen. Thomas R. Carper, Delaware Democrat, who chairs the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said he was shocked to learn of the spotters during a trip to the border earlier this year, saying that if U.S. troops had come across spotter locations in Iraq or Afghanistan, those sites would have been taken out.
Border Patrol Chief Michael J. Fisher said there’s a major difference between those war zones and the U.S.-Mexico border, where agents have to obey strict rules of engagement.
“The rules of engagement, what we call our ‘use of force,’ applies to individuals on the street or whether they’re up on a mountaintop,” he told the Senate panel.
Chief Fisher said the agency had had some success in ousting “dozens” of spotters from mountaintops, but he couldn’t say how many more locations remains.
The mountaintop spotters have been a thorny problem for years.
Two years ago, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano engaged in a heated exchange over how many spotters there were. Mr. McCain said he had been told there were hundreds, while Ms. Napolitano replied that there were hundreds of peaks that could be used, but there weren’t hundreds of actual spotters.
“Look, they are there, and everyone knows they’re there, and for you and your staff to deny that they’re there is sort of symptomatic to me,” Mr. McCain said.
The Washington Times has visited well-camouflaged spotter locations in the Sonoran Desert National Monument 75 miles north of the border, with a view of Interstate 8, which runs from just south of Phoenix west to San Diego.
Officials told The Times that every potential smuggling corridor in Arizona is monitored by mountaintop spotters, who are usually low-level cartel employees or those who owe a debt to the cartel.
They are armed with radios and cellphones and occasionally with weapons, and are sometimes held responsible if the drug loads they are spotting for are interdicted by authorities.