Friday, January 5, 2007

Armed men overran a National Guard observation post along the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona this week, forcing the soldiers to retreat and prompting an investigation by the U.S. Border Patrol that has focused on the intruders’ identity.

No shots were exchanged and no one was injured in the incident, which occurred shortly after 11 p.m. on Wednesday. The National Guard troops were members of an entry-identification team, assigned to monitor major illegal-alien and drug-smuggling corridors.

After forcing the soldiers to flee, the unidentified men retreated into Mexico.

National Guard Sgt. Edward Balaban said the troops did not know how many men were involved in the attack “because obviously it took place in the dark.” He said National Guard officials are investigating the incident and will determine shortly whether to change any procedures for troops at the border.

The Border Patrol probe has focused on determining who the armed men were, what they were doing and why they approached the observation post, which is located near Sasabe, Ariz., in one of this country’s major alien and drug-smuggling corridors. The outpost sits on a hillside overlooking the border and is covered by a tent and camouflage netting.

Several Border Patrol agents in the area told The Washington Times yesterday the armed men might have been trying to find out what the Guard troops would do if they were confronted by drug or alien smugglers. They said the increased presence of troops and additional Border Patrol agents in recent months had frustrated many of the area’s drug and alien smugglers.

“I guess they got their answer,” said one veteran agent. “When in doubt, the troops will run.”

Earlier this year, several Border Patrol agents said they had been assigned to guard National Guard personnel, given standing orders to be within five minutes of the troops deployed along the border. The agents, who referred to the assignment as “the nanny patrol,” said most of the Guard troops are not allowed to carry loaded weapons, despite a significant increase in violence directed at Border Patrol agents during the past year.

Border Patrol Chief David V. Aguilar disputed the assertions, saying only that “a small percentage” of his agents were working as “force protection” for the Guard members. He said those agents also were performing their traditional border-enforcement functions.

National Guard troops taking part in Operation Jump Start are not empowered to get involved in law-enforcement duties. They cannot detain, arrest or interdict anyone or anything coming across the border — only report them to the Border Patrol.

The Sasabe area has been the busiest in the Tucson, Ariz., Border Patrol sector for marijuana seizures. Agents have seized 124,000 pounds of the drug there since Oct. 1, said Rob Daniels, spokesman for the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector.

“We don’t know if this was a matter of somebody coming up accidentally on the individuals, coming up intentionally on the individuals, or some sort of a diversion,” Mr. Daniels said, adding that the increased presence of Guard and Border Patrol personnel had made it more difficult to smuggle drugs and people and “that heightened frustration may have been connected to what took place.”

About a third of the 6,000 National Guard troops now deployed along the 1,951-mile U.S.-Mexico border as part of President Bush’s $760 million “Operation Jump Start” are assigned to entry-identification teams. They have been deployed from California to Texas to upgrade border security and give the Border Patrol time to recruit, hire and train 6,000 new agents by the end of 2008.

Minuteman Civil Defense Corps President Chris Simcox, whose volunteers have staked out the Sasabe area for the past two years, said MCDC will increase its activity today with dozens of members expected to stand alongside Guard troops.

“I am not at all shocked by this incursion; our president and federal government have sent these lawbreakers a message of immunity if caught and a helping hand to accomplish their criminal goals,” he said. “Our nation is being overrun by the influx of illegal aliens as well as drug cartels that show no signs of fear in crossing our border.”

Chief Aguilar has called the troops “a vital asset in the effort to protect America from future terrorist attacks and mitigate illegal border incursions.” In addition to providing border security, the troops are building roads and fences, adding cameras and sensors, conducting aerial reconnaissance, providing medical aid and communications support, and assisting at highway checkpoints.

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