Thursday, January 26, 2006

A Texas border sheriff yesterday demanded that the U.S. and Mexican governments investigate incursions into the United States by heavily armed drug escorts dressed in Mexican military uniforms “before someone gets killed.”

Zapata County Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez Jr., who heads the Texas Sheriff’s Border Coalition, said a growing number of suspected incursions and violence aimed at the area’s law-enforcement officers is making the border “a pretty dangerous place.”

“We have tried everything we know to make the federal government aware of the problems at the border and how they have affected us,” said Sheriff Gonzalez, who has fewer than two dozen deputies to patrol 1,000 square miles, including 60 miles of Texas-Mexico border.

“It appears our government is covering this thing up because it just doesn’t want to admit there is a problem,” he said. “Trade between the United States and Mexico may be more important to Washington than human lives.”

His comments come in the wake of an incident Monday in which U.S. law-enforcement authorities in Hudspeth County, Texas, confronted several men in Mexican military uniforms who were accompanying drug smugglers. The “soldiers” were in a camouflaged Humvee with a mounted .50-caliber machine gun, said Hudspeth County Sheriff Arvin West.

Yesterday, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican, said she was “deeply concerned” about the possible incursions and asked Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to “fully investigate this matter and report to Congress the details and confirm whether or not Mexican military officials were involved.

“But make no mistake — this is only a symptom of a much larger problem,” she said. “Even after September 11, our nation’s borders remain porous. We must take bold action in securing our borders.”

The Mexican government has denied that the men in any of the incidents were soldiers, saying that some drug smugglers dress in military-style uniforms, carry automatic weapons and drive military-style vehicles.

Sheriff Gonzalez said he could not confirm that the men were soldiers, but said he was skeptical of the denials by the Mexican government. He described the suspected soldiers as “very military looking, clean cut and in good physical condition — not your average drug smuggler.”

“When you spot a Humvee with military paint on it and a .50 caliber machine gun, this leads you to suspect that it’s not a vehicle being used by drug lords,” Sheriff Gonzalez said.

In Monday’s incident, Hudspeth sheriff’s deputies pursued three SUVs back to Mexico after spotting them driving north from the Rio Grande. Sheriff West said the pursuit ended on the U.S. side of the border when the deputies — joined by Texas state troopers — encountered at least 10 heavily armed men in what he described as battle dress uniforms.

Sheriff West said deputies found 1,400 pounds of marijuana in one of the vehicles abandoned after it blew a tire early in the pursuit. Another made it into Mexico and a third got stuck in the Rio Grande and was burned by the “soldiers” after it was unloaded, said Sheriff West, who is a Border Coalition member.

No shots were fired and no injuries were reported.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman Kristi M. Clemens said the Hudspeth County incident is under investigation and CBP is “coordinating closely” with the federal, state and local authorities. She said the government also has discussed the matter with Mexico and is asking for a thorough investigation and response.

California Republican Reps. David Dreier and Duncan Hunter have asked three House committees and the Department of Homeland Security to investigate suspected incursions by the Mexican military. Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, also asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to “initiate an official investigation” and “open a dialogue with Mexico to prevent any future incursions.”

In November, Sheriff Gonzalez said Hudspeth deputies chased a dump truck, which also fled and got stuck in the Rio Grande. He said men dressed in uniforms showed up and threatened the deputies with machine guns. He said the men then bulldozed the truck back into Mexico.

On the border in Zapata County in September, he said, three of his deputies spotted 25 men dressed in military uniforms in the U.S. during a late-night patrol. He said that the men marched two abreast and carried duffel bags and automatic weapons, and that his outmanned and outgunned deputies retreated.

“The only thing you can do in that kind of situation is seek cover,” Sheriff Gonzalez said. “I’m not going to lose someone in an unfair fight.”

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