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U.S. law-enforcement officers in the Southwest are convinced that Mexican military units are crossing the Arizona-Mexico border to aid smugglers in carrying drugs into the United States.
In one incident, says a senior federal law-enforcement officer, a major in the Mexican army was caught at the U.S. port of entry at Naco, Ariz., carrying a detailed drug-smuggling map among his papers. The Mexican officer, said the official, was “coming into the United States and they found the drug-smuggling maps on him that showed all the drop points and trails” that local smugglers used for bringing narcotics into the United States.
The official said that in calendar year 2001, the U.S. government officially recorded 12 separate incidents in which Mexican military personnel crossed over the border into Arizona alone. On some occasions, a Border Patrol officer said, Border Patrol agents actually have arrested Mexican army personnel in U.S. territory.
“Without a doubt” Mexican military have made incursions into Arizona, said the Border Patrol official. “We have actually made arrests of both military and police. And as far as I know in all events the people were released to Mexican custody within 12 hours, as well as returning them with the weapons that they made the incursion with.”
‘We get slapped down’
When the Border Patrol in the region detains Mexican military personnel the event is placed on a special political track.
“It definitely becomes an international situation where we need to make all the notifications all the way up the chain of command to Washington and to the State Department,” said the Border Patrol official. “Once we make the arrest we hand it over to Washington to handle. People from our office will return them back over to Mexico, but that is not really done by the Border Patrol officers without direction from Washington.”
Another source said that because federal officials in Washington want to downplay the fact that the incursions are being made by Mexican military the incidents are logged as “military/police” incursions.
Law-enforcement officials in the field are convinced the intruders are Mexican military because they dress in fatigues, act like trained military personnel and frequently drive Humvees, a vehicle used by the Mexican military. This, however, does not necessarily persuade officials in Washington.
“We know that they are Mexican military,” said the senior law-enforcement officer. “But officially we are not allowed to say that because every time we say that we get slapped down.”
“We look at the Humvees that cross the border as a military vehicle,” said the officer. “When we bring up these incidents they’re saying in Washington, ‘Yeah, maybe they were originally military vehicles but maybe the police have them or maybe the drug cartels have them. You can’t guarantee that it was the military.'”
“Other elements of the government want to minimize the whole cross-border stuff,” said the official. “It’s highly political because of the current status between our governments and the agreements they’ve made. This doesn’t fit in.”
“We are out in the field,” he said. “We are on the ground, and we know what is going on.”
The Border Patrol official confirmed that agents in the field believe the Mexican military incursions are often, but not always, connected to drug smuggling. “I know it has happened in the past that Mexican military have been apprehended in the same areas and locations that narcotics are present.”
“That is what has happened in the past,” he said. “We don’t want to narrow it down to every time. It’s just that in a significant number of situations it has been found that that is the case.”
On the other hand, this official said, “Often it has been found through interviews that they entered the United States accidentally because they did not know where the line was.”
“It has been reported by Border Patrol agents that Mexican military vehicles have been seen with narcotics in them,” the Border Patrol official said. “The ones that I am aware of have occurred right on the border with the Mexican military still on the south side. Now, when called upon and questioned it was relayed by their personnel that they had made the seizure already and were planning on just doing whatever they do with it.”
“It’s quite possible that they were legitimate,” he said.
Border Patrol agents and officers working for other federal law-enforcement agencies, however, believe that some of the Mexican military seen frequenting the Arizona border, and making incursions into U.S. territory, are reconnoitering for and protecting drug smugglers and, in some circumstances, carrying the drugs across the border themselves.
A Border Patrol official described one incident in which Mexican military personnel were detected and “seen fleeing south before we were able to make the arrests.” When officers investigated the place from which they had fled “narcotics turned up in the area.”
So far, the official says, because of this kind of flight, U.S. authorities have not been able to capture Mexican military personnel inside the U.S. while in actual physical possession of narcotics.
“I don’t think they want to surrender with narcotics in their truck and that is why it unfolds the way it does,” he said.
Law-enforcement officials monitoring the Arizona border are also greatly concerned about the intensity and sophistication of the surveillance that drug cartels do in the region.
“It is an extremely common event where we’ll catch drug smugglers with handheld radios, night vision equipment, different maps,” said one official. “There is counter-intelligence and counter-counter-intelligence where we are monitoring them monitoring us.”
Another official said that they have captured encrypted portable radios from the drug smugglers. U.S. authorities have been able to use these captured encrypted radios to intercept and monitor the smugglers’ communications.
In Texas, where military units provided surveillance support for border-security personnel, drug cartel counter-surveillance people monitored the military bases to see when the U.S. personnel were leaving the base to start their surveillance.
In Arizona, drug cartel counter-surveillance people got to know the routines and habits of some U.S. border-security personnel so well that they gave them code names.
In Nogales, Ariz., said an official, an undercover Border Patrol officer, working with local police, discovered that a drug-smuggling ring had placed agents posing as gardeners on the city streets.
“They witnessed an individual,” he said, “who poses as a landscaper who watches Border Patrol agents and other law-enforcement vehicles driving down the roads and then gets on his radio and calls and says, ‘Hold up on your load. A Border Patrol agent just drove down. He is coming through your area.'”
Another law-enforcement officer referred to a site in Coronado National Monument as “smugglers’ ridge.” The monument sits right on the border, with the top of the ridge in U.S. territory and the south side of the mountain in Mexico. On that ridge, he says, law-enforcement authorities have “identified 27 different counter-surveillance locations in which people working for the smugglers will spend days observing everything that goes on in the park.”
At the bottom of the mountain on the north side is a residence for park rangers. “When the ranger leaves his house, they will report that he left the house and he got in his patrol vehicle, and what road he is driving down.”
“If the ranger stops and gets out of his car,” he says, “they will report whether he got out with a rifle or without a rifle.”
“On specific occasions,” he said, “we have had up to 18 Mexican counter-surveillance people in the park at one time. We have seen them within 50 feet of the house. Once when a ranger responded to a sensor hit, one of the counter-surveillance people recorded that the ranger was putting on his pants to respond. In other words, he was looking through the window.”
This official described an incident when a ranger stopped two men in a truck because the driver was speeding.
“He found 400 pounds of marijuana in the back of the truck,” said the official. “He arrests them, sits them down. There is a radio squawking. He is very fluent in Spanish, so he listens. What the voices on the radio are describing is the actual stop of the vehicle he had just made, where the vehicle is currently parked, what happened to the two people who are handcuffed, where they are sitting, and a description of the ranger.”
At times, a special Arizona Army National Guard unit supports federal law-enforcement agents patrolling the Arizona border in the effort to stop drug smugglers and illegal aliens. The National Guard unit, whose members call themselves the Nighthawks, uses special night-vision devices to detect smugglers after dark. They provide the U.S. agents with real-time intelligence on how many intruders have crossed the border and which way they are heading. They also look out for snipers.
But after Sept. 11, officials say, the National Guard was forced to refocus its resources at official ports of entry, minimizing its presence in the more remote areas where the military incursions and the bulk of the smuggling take place.
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