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Federal officials say Border Patrol and other federal agents working chronic drug-smuggling routes along the U.S. boundary with Mexico could be targets for retaliation by well-armed cartels from south of the Rio Grande, after a new enforcement push has dramatically curbed the importation of contraband.

“I do think we have to be prepared for the fact that as we press hard on these criminal organizations, some of them will want to fight back,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told reporters earlier this week.

Admitting there had already been an “uptick in violence” against federal officers in recent months because of increased anti-smuggling operations, Chertoff said agents were not only targeting drug rings but also human smugglers as well. Despite the threats of retaliation, however, Chertoff insisted: “We want to make it very clear that … will not cause us to back off” the current enforcement push.

As the Mexican drug and smuggling wars become increasingly violent, they are more frequently spilling across the border into the United States. Hundreds of people have been killed and wounded in the violence, especially near cities like Laredo, Texas and its Mexican sister city, Nuevo Laredo, right across the border.

Chertoff warned the situation was especially volatile for civilians.

“When civilians go down to the border, they are taking a huge chance with their own lives,” he said.

The DHS chief also would not elaborate on reports some of the cartels could be preparing contract-style hits against federal agents, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported. But rumors that Mexican-based drug cartels have offered rewards for the killing of American federal agents have surfaced in the past.

A week ago the Associated Press reported that a confidential memo from federal officials warned Border Patrol agents they could be the targets of assassins hired by the smugglers of illegal aliens.

And, as WorldNetDaily reported in 2000, Border Patrol officials said the Juarez cartel – one of the largest and most deadly – at one time placed a bounty of $200,000 on U.S. federal agents.

Violence along the U.S.-Mexico border is increasing at a time when lawmakers, under mounting pressure from constituents, are redoubling efforts to make the regions safer. The drug- and human-smuggling traffic, combined with a number of reported incursions by Mexican federal police and military units, have left many in Washington nervous about security, especially in light of ongoing terror threats.

The problems along the border represent “a clear and present danger to the security of the United States,” Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said.

His Texas colleague, Rep. John Culberson, also a Republican, said a recent fact-finding trip to the border “brought home to all of us that the war on terror is right in our back yard.”

“You don’t have to go to Baghdad” to find terrorist activity, he said, noting that he had intelligence from U.S. agencies indicating there were narco-terrorist training camps near the Mexican city of Matamoros.

One group that represents a major concern to U.S. authorities is the drug enforcer gang Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13. The group has spread from its origins in El Salvador to at least 31 states, according to the FBI, which is tracking the gang’s activities using a special task force. MS-13 is believed to provide security for Mexico’s Federation drug cartel.

Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., head of the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus and long-time critic of what he believes is lax border security on the part of the federal government, was in Phoenix today, the latest stop on his “Secure American Now” tour in which he is pushing for better border security and enforcement against illegal immigration. Tancredo – who is eyeing a 2008 presidential run – says MS-13 members are a major threat not only to U.S. agents but also local law enforcement officials and American citizens who may cross their path.

Regarding incursions into U.S. territory by Mexican military units, Chertoff downplayed their significance, suggesting the uniformed personnel being spotted by Border Patrol agents could be drug cartel members wearing military garb instead of bona fide members of the Mexican army.

“Sometimes we have those kinds of incursions. To create the image that somehow there is a deliberate effort by the Mexican military to cross the border would be really to traffic in scare tactics,” Chertoff told the Dallas Morning News Thursday. “I don’t think we have a serious problem with official incursions.”



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Previous stories:

Feds to border agents: Assassins targeting you

Armed standoff on Rio Grande

Border sheriff warns: We’re overwhelmed

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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