- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 25, 2002

Part Three of Five

SONOYTA, Mexico This isolated area of the U.S.-Mexico border, a 100-mile-wide stretch of wild desert between the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Coronado National Forest, has become one of America's newest drug corridors.

Mexican drug lords, backed by corrupt Mexican military officers and police officials, will move tons of marijuana, cocaine and heroin this year over rugged desert trails to accomplices in Phoenix and Tucson for shipment to willing buyers throughout the United States.

Most of the smuggling routes pass through the Tohono O'odham Nation, a sprawling Indian reservation, where undermanned and outgunned tribal police will confiscate more than 100,000 pounds of illicit drugs this year, about 300 pounds a day.

"They keep us running like you can't believe," said Detective Sgt. David Cray, who heads the Tohono Police Department's anti-drug unit. "They have two-way radios, night-vision gear, body armor and carry automatic weapons."

"They've put people on the hills to act as lookouts and use portable solar panels to power their communications equipment," he said. "They have powerful four-wheel-drive vehicles and are under orders not to stop to shoot their way through if they have to."

The smugglers, according to U.S. law-enforcement authorities, often are protected by heavily armed Mexican military troops and police, who have been paid handsomely to escort the drug traffickers and their illicit shipments across the border and into the United States.

The drug lords are expected to spend more than $500 million this year in bribes and payoffs to a cadre of Mexican military generals and police officials to ensure that the illicit drugs reach their destination, the authorities said.

Mexican smugglers will account for 80 percent of the cocaine and nearly half the heroin that reaches the streets of America this year.

Law-enforcement authorities all along the U.S.-Mexico border are concerned about the involvement of Mexican military troops and police in the alien- and drug-smuggling business. Several officials said in interviews that many Mexican police agencies along the border have been "totally corrupted" by drug smugglers and that the corruption included a number of key Mexican generals and other commanders.

Violence along the border, fueled by the drug trade, has spiraled out of control, the officials said.

Corruption among Mexican police is so extensive, they said, that some U.S. law-enforcement agencies refuse to work with their Mexican counterparts. Mexican police officials have been tied not only to alien and drug smuggling, but also to numerous incidents of extortion, bribery, robbery, assault and kidnapping along the border.

Border Patrol agents in Douglas, Ariz., were pulled from their duty stations after police in Aqua Prieta, Mexico, tipped U.S. authorities of a pending drug shipment. Supervisors were fearful of putting their agents in the middle of a shootout between rival drug gangs, each supported by competing Aqua Prieta police.

About two dozen incursions by the Mexican military have been documented this year, some of which resulted in unprovoked shootings, including one recent incident involving a U.S. Border Patrol agent. Several law-enforcement authorities along the border questioned why the Bush administration has not made an issue of Mexican troops crossing into the United States.

"I'm not sure what other country allows foreign military troops such willy-nilly access," said one veteran Border Patrol agent, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "I've seen them come across the border, heavily armed and equipped, and I often wonder why we're not doing anything about it."

The Mexican military deployments have occurred all along the 1,940-mile U.S.-Mexico border, from Texas, where Border Patrol agents in El Paso were fired on in March 2000 by people in two Mexican army Humvees, to California, where 10 Mexican soldiers shot at a Border Patrol helicopter in October 2000.

Many of the incursions have occurred near this Mexican town, where drug trafficking by Mexican smugglers has reached new levels.

"There's no doubt Mexican military units along the border are being controlled by the drug cartels, and not by Mexico City," said Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican, who recently returned from a tour of the Southwest border. "The military units operate freely, with little or no direction, and several of them have made numerous incursions into the United States."

"Mexican President Vicente Fox may be trying to take control of his military, but there is a major disconnect between him and them particularly among the units along the U.S.-Mexico border," he said.

Mr. Tancredo, head of the 65-member Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus, said the amount of drug trafficking in the remote regions of the Southwest desert has become so intense that armed confrontations are a constant threat.

He said the trafficking has been tied to Mexican drug cartels, and the shipments often are protected sometimes even delivered by Mexican military units.

"There isn't a soul down there on that border, either the Tohono O'odham police or the Border Patrol, who do not believe that is exactly what the Mexican military is doing," he said. "U.S. law-enforcement personnel actually have watched the Mexican military unload drugs from their Humvees to awaiting vehicles for transport into the United States."

Military incursions into America

Over the past five years, U.S. authorities have documented 118 incursions by the Mexican military. It is not known how many times Mexican military units have crossed undetected into the United States.

"I am amazed our government is not up in arms about this, but I am not surprised," Mr. Tancredo said. "While we have the resources to actually take control of our borders, including a combination of the U.S. military and the Border Patrol, we lack the political will."

"Instead, we continue to send young men and women in harm's way, to be shot at and, perhaps, killed. We're asking them to fight a war against an invasion of illegal immigrants and drugs, but we fail to give them the support they need to win that war."

The most recent documented Mexican military incursion occurred on May 17, when a Border Patrol agent was fired on by three Mexican soldiers in a military Humvee near what is known as the San Miguel gate on the Tohono reservation, about 30 miles northwest of Nogales, Ariz. The gunfire, which erupted shortly after 8:30 p.m., shattered the rear window of the U.S. agent's four-wheel-drive vehicle.

The unnamed agent, after spotting the soldiers, had sought to avoid a confrontation and, according to U.S. authorities, had turned his clearly marked, green-and-white Border Patrol vehicle away from the Humvee when it was hit by gunfire. The Mexican soldiers were armed with assault rifles.

One bullet was deflected by the vehicle's prisoner partition, located directly behind the agent's seat. It then knocked out the right rear window. The agent involved has been on the job for about a year, authorities said.

Earlier that day and in the same area, Border Patrol agents had confiscated 2,200 pounds of drugs from a vehicle that had crossed into the United States, although a second vehicle had escaped back into Mexico.

Edward Tuffly, president of the National Border Patrol Council Local 2544, asked in a message posted online to union members why the U.S. government was slow to acknowledge the incident. "The politicians will run like hell to avoid 'offending' anyone," he wrote.

Local 2544 represents Border Patrol agents in the Tucson sector. The National Border Patrol Council represents more than 8,000 nonsupervisory Border Patrol agents.

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, which oversees the Border Patrol, is investigating the May incident. The INS has asked the Mexican government also to investigate the shooting.

In August, U.S. National Park Service ranger Chris Eggle, 28, was killed on the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument while trying to apprehend two men fleeing Mexican law enforcement, who had crossed the border into the United States. One of the men shot Mr. Eggle just below his bulletproof vest.

U.S. authorities have since identified the suspected assailant as Panfilo Murillo Aguila, a Mexican national known as "El Zarco," a known drug smuggler in the Sonoyta area. Arrest warrants also have been issued in the case for two former Mexican soldiers identified as Rogelio Velasquez Jocobi and Carlos Perez Sanchez.

Helping the drug trade

Questions concerning the Mexican military's involvement in the drug trade, however, are long-standing.

In 1998, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration reported an extensive connection between drug traffickers in Mexico and senior members of the Mexican army. The DEA said at the time that it avoided cooperating with Mexican army officers for fear that intelligence would be passed on to drug smugglers.

Former DEA Administrator Donnie Marshall told a House subcommittee in 1999 that drug traffickers "have long had the ability to corrupt public officials and institutions throughout the world," noting that the Mexican military was not exempt.

At the time, Mexican military officers assigned to an elite anti-drug smuggling group had been arrested in Mexico City on charges of drug trafficking and alien smuggling. Among those arrested were several captains and majors, all of whom had been assigned to the Mexican Attorney General's Office as anti-narcotics agents.

Since Mr. Fox's 2000 election there has been an increase in the number of arrests of Mexican government and military officials, along with the creation of a federal drug-enforcement unit that has seized tons of narcotics and made numerous arrests.

Mexican authorities also have been more willing to work with their U.S. counterparts, and a number of the leaders and top lieutenants from all four of Mexico's major drug cartels have been arrested.

The Mexican government has denied that any part of its military is working with the drug cartels, saying in a recent statement that military units along the border are working the same areas as the U.S. Border Patrol in fighting the illegal transport of drugs and people into this country.

The statement said that sometimes the troops "get lost in those areas," noting that there is "no clear marking for the border" in many regions. Mexican Defense Department officials have declined to say how many soldiers are patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border or to comment on the incursions.

Many U.S. law-enforcement authorities doubt the contention that the units were lost.

"Some of these 'lost' units are carrying drugs, and we've seen them before," said a second veteran Border Patrol agent, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "Besides, if they are lost, why are they shooting at us instead of asking for directions?"

The politics of immigration

The White House opposes the stationing of U.S. troops on the Mexican border for "cultural and historical reasons."

President Bush, former governor of Texas, has sought to appeal to Hispanic voters through such initiatives as promoting a Western Hemispheric free trade zone, giving amnesty to 4 million to 7 million illegal immigrants in the United States and allowing immigrants visas that would be renewable each year as long as they hold jobs.

"Some look south and see problems," Mr. Bush said in a speech last year to State Department employees. "Not me. I look south and see opportunities."

But Mr. Tancredo said he wants "an explanation of these 'cultural and historical' reasons why we can't protect our nation's borders." He said it was "time" for the U.S. government to order troops to the border to assist in controlling illegal immigration and drug smuggling, both of which he described as "national security concerns."

Earlier this year, some House Republicans called on Mr. Bush to station military forces along the Southwest border, citing a need to stop the persistent flow of illegal immigrants and to combat drug smugglers, who have taken over several areas of the lengthy border.

The lawmakers said the number of violent encounters along the border, including incursions involving the Mexican military, was increasing, "creating a need for immediate action on the part of our government."

"We are extremely concerned about the porousness of both our northern and southern borders," said Rep. Jim Ramstad, Minnesota Republican, who joined in the call for stationing troops. "It is particularly disturbing that Canada and Mexico are still not adequately screening immigrant and cargo traffic in and out of their countries."

The Bush administration has placed 1,100 National Guardsmen on the borders with Canada and Mexico after the September 11 terrorist attacks, but those deployments ended in summer.

Meanwhile, officials at the Border Patrol's Tucson sector office, which is responsible for 261 miles of international border, continue to negotiate with the Mexican military about the problems of drug trafficking, alien smuggling and incursions.

"We have attempted to maintain an active dialogue with a number of the generals in the Mexican army," said Carlos X. Carrillo, assistant sector chief. "There is no question that when there is an incident, it is of grave concern to us."

"The safety of our agents and the possible violation of U.S. law concerns us deeply."

Assistant Chief Carrillo also said Tucson sector supervisors have a "strong liaison" with Mexico and have been "very active" in reaching out to their Mexican law-enforcement counterparts. He said sector officials have "actively sought an open line of communication in an effort to reduce the potential of these kinds of incidents."

But despite the continuing dialogue, there has been no decrease in the amount of drugs coming out of Mexico into the United States. Additionally, the number of illegal aliens crossing annually though the Tucson sector has skyrocketed.

"Things have improved," said a top U.S. law-enforcement official. "But corruption is so deeply entrenched in Mexico, it will take years to identify and remove those who are still involved. Many Mexican military officers operate with total autonomy, particularly in faraway places like the border."

"The drug smugglers have a ton of money to persuade them to the dark side."

At the Tohono O'odham Nation, which shares 76 miles of international border with Mexico, the reservation's 75-member police department will spend more than $3 million this year on all border-related issues, including the towing of up to 40 cars a day abandoned by alien smugglers and drug smugglers.

"The problems of illegal aliens and drug smuggling impacts significantly on the level of service we can provide to our own community," said acting Assistant Police Chief Joseph Delgado. "The Border Patrol has pushed the illegal immigrants out of the cities and towns and to our reservation, where we do not have the manpower to deal with the crunch. The community is upset that we can't focus on them."

Chief Delgado noted that because of the flood of immigrants and drug smugglers, the reservation has become a violent place for the 13,000 people who call the Tohono O'odham nation home. He said alien smugglers and drug smugglers refuse to stop for police and often race their four-wheel-drive vehicles over the reservation's many dirt roads at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour.

"Our children are out in the community, and every day they have to face these ruthless people," he said. "It is very frustrating that we have had to divert our attention and our resources to focus not on our own community but to deal with this rising immigration and drug problem."

"We're literally the front line of defense for the United States, and we are doing the best we can," he said. "But I assure you, it's going to get worse before it gets better.""

Part Two: "We are overwhelmed."

Part One: New strategies to slow the flood of illegal immigrants.

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