- The Washington Times - Friday, February 23, 2007

Rival alien and drug smugglers on the U.S.-Mexico border are targeting each other in a wave of escalating violence to win control of smuggling corridors into the United States, with at least four recent killings tied to efforts to kidnap migrants for ransom.

Three of the killings took place Feb. 8 north of Tucson, Ariz., in what federal and state law-enforcement authorities have described as one of the nation’s most popular alien- and drug-smuggling corridors. Another occurred Jan. 28, south of Tucson.

Authorities said gang members are kidnapping illegal aliens being guided into the United States, demanding ransoms of up to $2,500 a person and killing the illegals, along with gang rivals, who resist. The kidnappings save the gangs the cost of recruiting migrants in Mexico and hiring guides, or “coyotes,” to bring them across the border.

They also said some gang members are thought to have targeted “stash houses” in Phoenix, where illegal aliens are taken to await transportation to cities across the country.

Violence on the U.S.-Mexico border has risen dramatically over the past three years in what U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has called “an unprecedented surge.” ICE has established intelligence and investigative operations along the border to combat the increased brutality.

In a recent report, ICE said the border gangs, which collect hundreds of millions of dollars annually in illicit profits, are becoming increasingly ruthless — against their victims, rivals and federal, state and local police.

Much of that violence has targeted U.S. Border Patrol agents, who have seen a spike in incidents as the agency continues its efforts to bring larger areas of the border under operational control. Violence directed at agents has included physical and vehicle assaults, and shooting incidents.

Gunfire has become commonplace along the border, authorities said, particularly in the alien- and drug-smuggling corridors of southern Arizona. They said about 90 percent of the migrants headed north out of Mexico have hired a coyote to guide them into the United States.

T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents all 11,000 of the agency’s non-supervisory agents, said violence by gangs battling for control of smuggling routes into the United States has increased dramatically, and is now spilling over into some U.S. communities.

Mr. Bonner said that while much of the violence is directed at rival gang members, there is what he called an “inevitable spillover that touches innocent civilians and law-enforcement officials on both sides of the border.” He noted that the number of assaults against Border Patrol agents has more than doubled over the past two years.

“Cartels are far more inclined to utilize violence as a means of achieving their goal of successfully smuggling contraband and people,” he said.

In the Feb. 8 incident, three Guatemalan nationals in a truck carrying illegal aliens were killed and three others wounded. One man, identified as a coyote, was killed in the Jan. 28 ambush as he drove across the desert with a load of 15 to 20 illegals, who fled.

The February incident followed by a day the attack of illegal aliens being led out of Mexico near Sasabe, Ariz., about 70 miles southwest of Tucson, by four men carrying assault weapons and wearing ski masks. The aliens were robbed, but none was reported injured.

Men armed with assault rifles also approached a National Guard site on the border near Sasabe on Jan. 3. The armed guardsmen were ordered to relocate to a safer location. They called the Border Patrol, which responded 16 minutes later, but the intruders had fled. No shots were fired, and no one was injured. The armed men have not been identified.

State and local law-enforcement officials on the border have said they are outgunned and outmanned by drug- and alien-smugglers armed with automatic weapons, grenade launchers, bazookas, improvised explosive devices, and state-of-the-art communications and tracking systems.

The rising border violence also has been attributed by authorities to efforts by the street gang Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, to win control of drug- and alien-smuggling routes into the United States. The Border Patrol’s field-intelligence center said MS-13 has aligned with drug cartels in Mexico and Colombia, and seeks unfettered access to smuggling corridors.

The intelligence center said the MS-13 presence has increased competition between rival gangs that must vie for areas where they can ply their trade. The result, it said, has been an increase in violence as rival gangs struggle for domination.

MS-13 members also reportedly have accepted contracts to assassinate Border Patrol agents to intimidate and frighten agents away from the border.

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