- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2003

Nearly 140 new federal agents will be assigned to the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona this year to protect against terrorists, a rising flood of illegal immigrants, and drug and alien smugglers, said border czar Asa Hutchinson.

"We are taking on the protection of our borders with a new agency at a time of a real national threat to our country, but we are up to the task," said Mr. Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security at the Department of Homeland Security.

"The potential for terrorists or others to do us harm after crossing into the United States is significant and we must focus on the mission at hand: To protect our borders by enhancing our technological abilities, increasing our intelligence capabilities and readjusting priorities to make us more effective," he told The Washington Times.

His comments came after a two-day Blackhawk helicopter tour of much of Arizona's 400-mile-long international border, during which he assured trade association and community leaders that protecting the border did not mean stopping the free flow of trade and commerce into the United States.

Mr. Hutchinson said 70 Border Patrol agents and 69 Customs Service inspectors would be assigned to the new Bureau of Customs and Border Protection at the ports of entry, adding that Congress had approved $500 million to study technology improvements for the nation's security.

"As part of the new Department of Homeland Security, these officers will join a bureau that reports to one agency head in one department," he said. "Before this, border inspectors and agents reported to three separate agencies in three separate departments of government.

"We are moving rapidly to fulfill our commitment to present one face of government at our borders," he said.

Mr. Hutchinson also said the enhanced border effort will include a review of suspected incursions into the United States by Mexican military units and will target drug and alien smugglers who have focused on the Arizona border because of its easy access into the United States.

"I've asked about the incursions, and it appears that rogue units carried them out," he said. "We need to follow up every incident, be sure it's properly investigated and then deal with it. We've had a lot of cooperation from Mexican authorities, and we need to continue to encourage them to address the issue."

A two-month investigation last year by The Times documented 118 incursions by the Mexican military during the past five years, including a May 17 incident in which three Mexican soldiers in a military Humvee fired on a Border Patrol agent. It happened near what is known as the San Miguel gate on the Tohono O'Oodham Indian reservation, 30 miles northwest of Nogales, Ariz.

The agent, after spotting the soldiers, had sought to avoid a confrontation and, U.S. authorities said, had turned his clearly marked green-and-white Border Patrol vehicle away from the Humvee when it was hit by gunfire, shattering the rear window.

The Mexican soldiers were armed with assault rifles.

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

U.S. authorities have identified the assault suspect as a Mexican national known as "El Zarco," a drug smuggler. Arrest warrants also have been issued for two former Mexican soldiers.

Mexican drug lords, backed by corrupt Mexican military officers and police officials, will move tons of marijuana, cocaine and heroin across the Arizona border this year. Authorities said the smugglers will spend more than $500 million in bribes and payoffs to a cadre of Mexican military generals and police officials to ensure delivery.

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