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Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez, Jr, sees the 60 miles of the Texas-Mexico border his deputies patrol as a frontline in the war on terror – his biggest fear is smugglers will bring terrorists and dirty bombs into the U.S. through his county.

Gonzalez, Zapata County’s chief lawman and chairman of the Border Sheriff’s Association, told a San Antonio conference yesterday it’s not a matter of “if,” but “when,” a terrorist will enter the U.S. through Mexico with a dirty bomb or some other weapon of mass destruction. The fault, Gonzalez said, can be placed on the federal government for failing to protect its borders, San Antonio’s WOAI radio reported.

“We tried everything we know, with little success, to make the federal government aware of the problems we face and how they have affected us. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security has done nothing to help us,” he told the Washington Times last month.

Gonzalez credits federal officials with warning him that al-Qaida terrorists are looking to use smugglers, including the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, gang to bring terror operatives across the border. Additionally, the sheriff was told, terrorists-in-waiting have been going to Central America to learn Spanish so they will not stand out from other aliens entering the United States.

“If smugglers can bring a hundred people or 2,000 pounds of marijuana into the United States, how simple would it be to bring terrorists into this country, or a suitcase loaded with a dirty bomb?” Gonzalez told the Washington Times last month. “I am very surprised it hasn’t already happened.”

“Illegal immigration is the least of our concerns,” Gonzalez said. “We’ll deal with illegal immigration. What I worry about is the dangerously violent narcotics gangs and especially the terrorists. There [are] people from countries of interest to the United States which could easily come over this border. They may already be in the country. We don’t know.”

The current “catch and release” policy for illegals from countries other than Mexico is “ridiculous,” Gonzalez said, noting that all the other 16 Texas-border sheriffs and Border Patrol agents in the field agreed with him.

“Illegal aliens will come across, and once they come across they will even change into better clothing, come out of the brush, and simply surrender to the Border Patrol,” he said. “They get processed and they get a certificate telling them to go to a hearing before an immigration judge, and then they let them go. Of course, they don’t show up for the hearing.”

Gonzalez’s beat is made all the tougher by the fact Zapata County is only 50 miles south of Nuevo Laredo, the site of an ongoing war between Mexican drug cartels that has claimed 135 lives in 2005 and is being fought with the help of the Zetas, a gang of Mexican military deserters – heavily armed and trained in the U.S. – providing protection services.

Border sheriffs became so frustrated with the lack of assistance from Washington as well as policies like “catch and release” they formed the Texas Border Sheriff’s Coalition to speak with a “single voice” on border issues, particularly the need for funding as they commit more time and resources to border security.

“Protecting the border is a national security issue, and it’s always been our concern,” Gonzalez said. “But each sheriff along the border thought it was just his problem to deal with. But our residents are living in fear. And it’s not just happening to one sheriff, but to 16. We used to deal with it in silence. Now, we can speak together.”

Gonzalez and most of the other border lawmen are supporting a proposal by Rep. John Culberson (R-Houston) to provide funds for border counties to deputize and train citizens as “reserve officers” to patrol the border, much as volunteers with the Minuteman organization have done.

Meanwhile, House Republicans testified yesterday that illegal immigrants – including those from countries other than Mexico – are overwhelming law enforcement in border communities.

“Gangs and drug traffickers can easily overwhelm small, local law enforcement departments,” said Texas Rep. Henry Bonilla. “Imagine if this was happening in your town. You might feel under siege.”

New Mexico’s Rep. Steve Pearce told members the Border Patrol has captured two illegal immigrants from Afghanistan, two from Indonesia, nine from Iran and one from Syria in his district over the past two years.

That’s the kind of information Sheriff Gonzalez says keeps him awake at night.

Related stories:

Mexican drug commandos expand ops in 6 U.S. states

It’s war between cops in Mexico

The threat from Mexico

‘It’s a war’ along Mexican border

Mexican commandos seek control of border

Mexican commandos new threat on border

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