‘More firefights than in Bosnia’

At least 10 times in the last 10 weeks, U.S. law enforcement officers and soldiers have been fired upon by assailants in Mexico. But that statistic doesn’t even begin to tell the story of how high tensions are running along the border. If the situation doesn’t cool off, the Mexican border in 1997 could redefine the way Americans think of “a long, hot summer.”

“There have been more firefights on the border in recent weeks than there have been in Bosnia,” said an exasperated Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, before passage of a little-noticed bill last week authorizing President Clinton to send up to 10,000 troops to the Mexican border to help stop illegal immigration and drug trafficking.

The latest surge of violence began April 18, when two U.S. Customs inspectors were wounded in a gun battle at the Calexico border station. The attacker, a Mexican national, was killed by the agents. Later that day, a tunnel linking Calexico with Mexicali was closed by a bomb threat. Fifty miles to the north, an illegal alien smuggler allegedly tried to run down a Border Patrol agent. He and 25 illegal aliens in the van were arrested after a televised chase along California freeways that ended in suburban West Covina.

On May 11, Border Patrol agents and sheriff’s deputies in San Diego were fired upon after a deputy tried to stop a vehicle for speeding.

On May 17, a Border Patrol agent was wounded by sniper fire from an AK-47 as he sat in his Ford Bronco near the San Ysidro border-crossing station. The shots came, according to the Border Patrol, from inside Mexico. The agent was hit in the face, and, although his injuries are not life-threatening, he is still recovering.

On May 20, a unit of Marines was fired upon by a Mexican-American on the U.S. side of the border in Texas as the soldiers provided surveillance assistance to the Borer Patrol. The Marines returned fire, killing the assailant.

On May 23, two Border Patrol agents working near Border Field State Park came under sniper fire. The agents fired 50 to 60 rounds back into Mexico. Another attack was reported the next day. At least two other gun battles between Border Patrol agents in Naco, Arizona, and people on the Mexican side of the border took place in May.

On June 1, Border Patrol agents were fired at west of the San Ysidro crossing. None of the agents were injured. Then, again, bullets were fired from Mexico at two Border Patrol agents in separate incidents June 17 and 18 near San Ysidro. Another border patrolman was killed June 14 when he fell down a ravine while pursuing suspects.

“People are getting killed along the border,” said Rep Brian Bilbray during the troop deployment debate. Most Americans, though, haven’t noticed.

“These shootings coming from south of the border aimed north are something that we haven’t experienced until just about a month or so ago,” explains Border Patrol spokesman Jim Pilkington. Also unprecedented is the type of weapon being used — AK-47 rifles equipped with special telescopes and laser range-finders normally restricted to the Mexican army.

“There is a war going on for control of our border with Mexico,” says Hunter, matter-of-factly.

Yes, and in this war, the U.S. Border Patrol is outgunned and outmanned. Agents are prohibited from using automatic weapons. But the attackers have them.

“We have said for years that you won’t know you’re being invaded until you try to stop it,” said Glenn Spencer of Voice of Citizens Together, a grass-roots organization which has been fighting illegal immigration for the last six years. “We are going to see escalating violence at the border which will only end with a wide-ranging confrontation which, I suspect, will spread into the United States.”

The troop commitment by Congress, however, is seen as a largely symbolic move, because Clinton does not approve of the idea of deploying soldiers along the border. Before the troops could be dispatched, Attorney General Janet Reno would have to request them from the secretary of defense. But that’s not likely, of course. Unless she finds out that those assault weapons are being fired by Mexican “cult members.”

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