Thursday, February 3, 2005

Snipers working as “lookouts” for drug traffickers and illegal-alien smugglers are targeting U.S. Border Patrol agents from vantage points across the U.S.-Mexico border.

Within the past week, agents assigned to the Douglas station in Arizona’s southeastern corner — one of the nation’s busiest illegal-entry points — have been fired at on at least six occasions, according to federal authorities, and although none of the officers was injured, several reported near-misses.

One agent’s vehicle was hit twice as he moved to avoid gunfire. Another sniper fired both at an agent and at a surveillance camera, which was hit by four bullets but was not seriously damaged.

Since Oct. 1, agents assigned to the Tucson sector, which includes the border stations at Douglas, Naco and Nogales in the highest alien- and drug-trafficking corridor in the country, have been assaulted 80 times, nine involving shootings. Responsible for a 260-mile section of the Arizona-Mexico border, the Tucson agents are being assaulted at a rate of two every three days in that period, more than doubling last year’s total.

“The continuing increase in the number of assaults being directed at our agents is of great concern,” said Border Patrol spokesman Andy Adame in Tucson. “We believe the vast majority of these assaults are directly tied to alien and drug smugglers based in Mexico.

“Although the border is more secure today than it was even a year ago, we acknowledge that more agents, equipment and technology are needed immediately to bring control and to reduce the number of violent assaults against our agents,” Mr. Adame said.

The rise in assaults comes as the Bush administration reportedly has decided not to hire the 2,000 new Border Patrol agents that were authorized for each of the next five years in the recently passed intelligence-overhaul bill. Most of them would have been assigned to the Tucson sector.

Instead, President Bush is expected to seek an increase of only about 200 agents for the new fiscal year, according to law-enforcement authorities and others.

Passed by Congress and signed into law by Mr. Bush in December, the intelligence-overhaul bill authorizes 10,000 new Border Patrol agents in five years as part of Congress’ response to the September 11 attacks and to a report by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, which found deep institutional failings and missed opportunities by U.S. authorities in stopping the al Qaeda terrorists who crashed jetliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who left office this week, and Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson, who leaves March 1, have confirmed separately that Mr. Bush will not seek funding for the 2,000 agents this year. Both said budget concerns precluded hiring the additional agents.

That decision has riled Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who told reporters last week he was “disappointed,” because the reduction appeared to be contrary to what the president had promised.

In a letter, Mr. Sensenbrenner asked Mr. Bush to fully fund the authorized increases. The letter was signed by all five House Republican leaders on the intelligence bill: Mr. Sensenbrenner and Reps. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, chairman of the House International Relations Committee; Duncan Hunter of California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee; Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, chairman of the House intelligence committee; and David Dreier of California, chairman of the House Rules Committee.

Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican and chairman of the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus, said he was “not surprised” by the funding decision, but was “disappointed.”

“It’s equivalent to denying a crime-ridden city more officers for protection. It simply makes no sense,” Mr. Tancredo said, adding that the State Department issued a traveler’s warning for the northern part of Mexico just last week, citing deteriorating security conditions — including killings and kidnappings — along the U.S.-Mexico border.

White House officials have said Mr. Bush’s 2006 fiscal budget, due Monday, will “provide increased resources” for continued border-security initiatives, although they declined to elaborate.

Meanwhile, Border Patrol agents in the Tucson sector said snipers fire at the agents using cover on the Mexican side of the border, then disappear into the desert — knowing that they are not going to be pursued.

Mr. Adame said one agent on patrol on Jan. 26 near the U.S.-Mexico boundary fence adjacent to Douglas International Airport observed several people standing behind the fence and identified them as “lookouts” for alien or drug smugglers. He said as the agent approached, he saw a muzzle flash and heard a bullet as it “whizzed by.”

The agent, he said, moved to safety, and as other agents responded to the scene, the unidentified men disappeared farther into Mexico.

Mr. Adame said another agent on patrol Friday, also near the Douglas airport, moved to safety after hearing gunshots coming from Mexico. No one was spotted, he said, although an examination of the agent’s vehicle revealed that it had been hit twice, once in the rear driver’s side tire and another through the front bumper and into the motor.

No one has been arrested in the shootings.

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