Union Tribune

June 16, 2002 

Shots Across the Border
Are Mexican soldiers protecting drug routes into U.S.? 


PAPAGO FARMS, Ariz. – The bullet that ripped into a Border
Patrol sport utility vehicle on May 17, shattering glass and
nearly striking an agent on solitary patrol in the creosote and
cactus and darkness of a Sonora Desert night, has inflamed
suspicions about the role of the Mexican military along the
U.S.-Mexico border.

Many U.S. border agents in the area are convinced that rogue
elements of the Mexican army are shielding drug and immigrant
smugglers. Mexican officials reject the accusations, saying there
is no proof to support them. But all agree that the area has
become one of the border's most active corridors for hustling
drugs up to Phoenix and out across the seemingly insatiable
American market.

The attack sent officials of both countries scrambling for a series
of meetings to discuss what happened when the agent took fire
shortly after nightfall in an isolated part of Tohono O'odham
Indian land along the Arizona border southwest of Tucson.

The single bullet was fired amid a years-old catalog of alleged
border incursions by Mexican soldiers and police.

The list may have gotten longer Friday. Eight border crossers
traveling in a sport utility vehicle with more than a dozen others
near Calexico were wounded by shots fired from a military-style
Humvee. The vehicle's driver was trying to cross the border into
the United States in a remote area.

It's not known if Mexican troops crossed the border.

U.S. and Mexican officials say incursions typically result from
nothing more sinister than a loss of bearings in a rugged, hostile,
poorly marked landscape. They say U.S. agents sometimes cross
inadvertently into Mexico.

The May 17 shooting occurred in a sparse and starkly beautiful
desertscape, rimmed by sand-blasted, saw-toothed mountains,
where smugglers casually slash gaps in the chest-high,
four-strand barbed-wire livestock fence that stretches along the
border. It is an imperfect impediment for livestock. For border
crossers, the fence is little more than a line of orientation.

This much seems clear. Through his headlights on the uneven
terrain, the Border Patrol agent suddenly saw a military-type
Humvee emerge from the darkness with three armed men on its
rear platform.

Trying to avoid contact, the agent reversed field in his Chevy
Tahoe. As he drove off, the bullet pierced his rear window,
deflected off a metal cage used to transport undocumented
immigrants, and shattered the glass of the window behind him.
He sped off, his newly ventilated vehicle sucking in a cloud of
brown desert dust.

But the bigger picture remains unclear. Who were the shooter
and his armed companions? Were they protecting the drug
traffickers who make the reservation roads one of the most
active drug corridors in this turbulent borderland that agents
call "The Wild West?"

Border Patrol officials say they do not know whether the
Mexicans or the agent crossed the border.

"I can tell you that's not the biggest issue," said Johnny Williams,
who supervises the Border Patrol from the Washington
headquarters of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Williams said what the agency most wants to know is: Why was a
shot fired at a Border Patrol agent in a clearly marked truck with
a light bar on its roof? He has asked the Mexican government for
talks aimed at avoiding similar incidents. They have agreed.

The State Department has weighed in, sending a formal
"diplomatic note" to the Mexican Embassy in Washington asking
for an explanation.

"The shooting makes this a very serious incident," said James
Derham, a deputy assistant secretary of state for Western
hemisphere affairs.

A spokesman for the Mexican Embassy in Washington said
Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda has asked the defense
ministry to provide the information needed to respond to the
United States. Citing "the excellent climate of understanding"
between the countries, spokesman Miguel Monterrubio also said
that binational efforts are under way to improve the delineation
of the border in areas where there has been confusion.

In early May, before the shooting, the incursions sparked an
undiplomatic exchange between a U.S. congressman and the
Mexican Embassy in Washington.

"For what purpose is the Mexican Army crossing the border
without the permission of the United States at least twice a
month?" Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., wrote to Mexican
President Vicente Fox after a trip to the Arizona border.

Tancredo's number was consistent with the Border Patrol's
accounts of all incursions, although most of them are attributed
to local police forces. His letter also expressed the suspicion that
the incursions were intended to protect drug traffickers.

Tancredo, best known for his efforts to stem immigration,
received an equally sharp response from Mexican Ambassador
Juan Jose Bremer. A courtly man of formal bearing, Bremer
chafed at the "unpolite and inadequate tone" of Tancredo's letter
and asserted that Mexico provides an account of "each and
every case" of incursions through diplomatic channels.

The controversy comes at a time when U.S. officials are praising
the Fox administration for the dramatic arrests of some of
Mexico's most notorious drug traffickers. The detentions of
prominent figures such as Benjamín Arellano Félix of the
Tijuana-based drug cartel have been carried out by an elite unit
of the Mexican army.

But the shadow of narco-bribery runs long and deep in Mexico,
staining entire police forces and parts of the army, one of
Mexico's most respected national institutions.

The army also is one of Mexico's most opaque institutions, with
an ingrained resistance to public scrutiny.

An effort to interview the commanding general at the Army base
– Campo Militar 4-F – about 25 miles west of the May 17 border
shooting was turned aside at the gate, where armed soldiers
stood guard near two Humvees on a military campus graced by
neat rows of desert plants and a grassless soccer field. Inquiries
were referred to officials in far-off Mexico City.

Roderic Camp, an expert on Mexico at Claremont McKenna
College, said that even under the crusading Fox the military is
vulnerable to narco-corruption.

"No question, there are still corrupt individuals and groups of
individuals in the military," Camp said. "The money is just too

In addition to that temptation, he said, officials often are faced
with traffickers who threaten to kill them if they don't cooperate.

Camp sees Mexican corruption as a byproduct of America's
insatiable demand for drugs.

"We are the ones creating the problem," he said.

In a further note of caution against U.S. indignation, Camp noted
that a string of prosecutions in the United States has
demonstrated that U.S. officials can be corrupted by

Addressing the May 17 incident, Mexican foreign ministry
spokesman Roberto Rodriguez said preliminary reports suggest
it was the work of traffickers, who are legendary in Mexico for
their ability to buy the best equipment.

As for the Tancredo drug-trafficking claim, Rodriguez said,
"Someone who makes that charge should be able to prove it, and
there is no proof. We have no reports of military patrols in the
area at that time."

Border Patrol agents in southern Arizona say they have no
doubt traffickers of both drugs and immigrants are buying
protection from the Mexican army.

"Whenever they're (soldiers) there, we know something is going
on – drug smuggling or alien smuggling," said an agent, who
asked – like other agents interviewed for this story – not to be

They said they feared reprisal from Border Patrol officials if they
spoke to reporters without authorization. During a reporter's
recent visit, a supervisor warned the agents via e-mail not to
speak with him.

But retired Border Patrol agent Ron Sanders faces no such
constraint. The former head of the Border Patrol's Tucson
sector, which covers 281 miles of Arizona's 350-mile stretch of
the Mexican border, spoke openly of his distrust of the Mexican

Before retiring in 1999 he received intelligence reports "on a
routine basis" that tied the army to drug trafficking, he said.

"The intelligence reports clearly stated that the military was
taking drugs from drug traffickers, destroying only part of it and
then reselling it to the cartels in the Douglas and Nogales areas,"
he said, referring to two Arizona bordertowns.

"They seemed always to be in the area when the drugs were
coming north and they seldom seemed to be keeping drugs out,"
Sanders said.