San Diego Union Tribune

January 28, 2006

Incursion at border heightens tensions
Guest-worker program prospects may be hur
By Jerry Kammer

WASHINGTON – For years, the U.S.-Mexico border has spawned reports of shadowy figures in Mexican army uniforms darting into the United States and then back south.

Frequent speculation by Border Patrol agents that the incursions demonstrate collusion between the army and drug traffickers has heightened the sense of alarm.

But few if any accounts have been as dramatic as the detailed official accounts of a confrontation Monday in Texas, when three vehicles fleeing Texas sheriff's deputies dashed into the Rio Grande. There they received heavily armed cover from about 20 personnel dressed in Mexican military garb.

“These illegal incursions are a violation of our sovereignty and pose a significant danger to U.S. law enforcement officials and citizens near the border – especially if all parties involved are armed,” said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. “The potential for violence is significant.”

The incident at the Rio Grande has roiled the diplomatic waters between the two countries, aggravating old U.S. suspicions that the Mexican border is hopelessly lawless and corrupt, and reinforcing Mexican convictions that Americans are self-righteous and dishonest about their hunger for illegal drugs and labor.

Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Derbez and U.S. ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza exchanged sharp words over the incident. Meanwhile, Bush administration officials privately fretted that the dust-up could damage chances for persuading Congress to adopt a guest-worker program that would require close U.S.-Mexico cooperation.

“When things like this happen, everybody tends to vent,” said one administration official who declined to be identified. “We all need to take a step back and take a deep breath.”

Department of Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said yesterday that the United States and Mexico have launched a joint effort to investigate the Texas incident. It ended with the seizure of one of the fleeing vehicles and its nearly 1,500-pound load of marijuana, the escape of another into Mexico and the torching of the third, which got stuck in the shallow river.

“The government of Mexico has been responsive to our requests for a thorough investigation and a prompt response,” said Knocke.

Just five days before the Texas incident, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff downplayed the reports of incursions, which have been documented all along the 1,950-mile border.

Chertoff said many of them involved accidental or incidental crossings of a border that is scarcely marked in many remote areas.

“I think the stories are overblown,” said Chertoff, apparently responding to claims by Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., who is convinced that elements of the Mexican army have joined forces with drug traffickers.

Declaring that the border has become “a war zone,” Tancredo this week said U.S. troops should be sent to the border to control the situation.

Yesterday, the Department of Homeland Security released figures showing a downward trend in incursions, from 42 in 2001 to 37 in 2002, 23 in 2003 and 2004, and 19 in 2005.

When Knocke was asked whether U.S. officials had concluded that any of the incursions involved Mexican military personnel escorting drug traffickers, he declined to respond.

Former Mexican diplomat Andrés Rozental said that unless both governments tone down their rhetoric, the controversy could infect this year's Mexican presidential election campaign.

“It could drive the candidates to wrap themselves in the Mexican flag once again, and bring forth all the nationalistic arguments about why should we cooperate with the United States on drug trafficking and border security when all we get back is slaps in the face and walls at the border,” said Rozental, who directs the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations.