An Arizona congressman yesterday demanded the State Department take “immediate diplomatic action” to stop Mexican military incursions into the United States, saying U.S. Border Patrol agents face a continuing threat of being killed by rogue soldiers protecting drug smugglers.
Two-term Republican Rep. Rick Renzi, in a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said reports of Mexican military units providing armed escorts to drug and alien smuggling operations represent “narco-terrorism in its purest form.”
“Our borders are under attack by sophisticated organizations that have no qualms about firing on our Border Patrol units,” Mr. Renzi said. “As we get tougher and more committed, so do the organizations committed to smuggling death and terror across our borders.”
A State Department official yesterday said the department is “in touch with the Mexican government when incidents occur,” adding that “they are usually resolved at that time at the local level.” The official did not know whether Mr. Renzi’s letter had been received.
Meanwhile, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff yesterday told reporters at Defense Today magazine that Mexican military incursions average about 20 a year, but were declining.
He called concern over the issue “overblown” and “scare tactics.”
Mr. Chertoff also said a significant number of the incursions were “innocent,” noting that police and military units in Mexico pursuing criminals “may step across the border because they do not know exactly where the line is.”
“Sometimes they may be people who are dressed in what appear to be military uniforms but they are just criminals, they are not military but they are wearing camouflage so someone may assume they are military,” he said.
“We have good relations with our counterparts across the border, we do have instances where we have Mexican police or military who deserted and become involved with criminal activity but we also have bad cops in the United States, too. It happens,” he said.
The U.S. Border Patrol recently warned agents in Arizona of military incursions by Mexican soldiers “trained to escape, evade and counter-ambush” if detected. The warning follows increased sightings of what authorities describe as heavily armed Mexican military units on the U.S. side of the border.
While the Mexican government has vigorously denied that its military is crossing into the U.S., Mr. Renzi said that during a tour of the Arizona border last month in a U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE) helicopter, the pilot showed him military-style humvees lining up at dusk just south of the border to move drugs into the U.S.
He said the preparations occur nightly, noting that 50 percent of the drugs coming into this country pass though the Arizona desert.
“The Border Patrol knows they’re coming but they are outmanned and outgunned,” he said. “We need military technology to combat these military operations.”
Mr. Renzi also said states such as Arizona should be able to supplement federal border enforcement with federally financed state border guard units. He said states can react quickly to new border threats, and that the federal government is unable to graduate enough new agents.
“Border states are tired of waiting for a secure border,” he said.
The Border Patrol warning asked the agents to report the size, activity, location, time and equipment of any units observed, but warned them to keep “a low profile,” use “cover and concealment” in approaching the units, and to “stay as quiet as possible.”
Rafael Laveaga, spokesman for the Mexican Embassy in Washington, denied this week that the Mexican military was crossing into the United States. He said the use by some drug smugglers of green uniforms and military-style vehicles had “confused” U.S. authorities.
Mr. Laveaga said Mexican military units have strict protocols to prevent them from crossing the border.
But T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents all 10,000 of the agency’s non-supervisory personnel, said it was “common knowledge” along the border that some Mexican military units, federal and state police, and former Mexican soldiers are paid by drug cartels to protect shipments of cocaine, marijuana and heroin into the United States.
A total of 216 incursions by suspected Mexican military units have been documented since 1996 — 75 in California, 63 in Arizona and 78 in Texas, according to a Department of Homeland Security report.
Mr. Renzi said radar-equipped aerostat balloons now on the border have forced airplanes that previously brought drugs into the United States to “land short,” about 120 miles south of the border where the drugs are transferred to vehicles to be driven across the border. He said the balloons could be mounted with sensors to detect the approach of drug smugglers and “the muscle that protects them.”
He is the author of a $50 million border intelligence pilot program known as “Red Zone Defense,” which was included in the Department of Homeland Security’s appropriation bill. It would coordinate the sharing of intelligence on border security information in Cochise County, Ariz., an area of the border that has become the nation’s most popular drug and alien smuggling corridor.
Mr. Renzi said the two-year program would use airships, aerostats and unmanned aerial vehicles for surveillance that could pinpoint the exact location of drug smugglers on the border. He said that would give Border Patrol agents increased security.
The program, although funded, has not been implemented.
Nicholas Kralev contributed to this report.