Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said last week’s report of Mexican military units crossing into U.S. territory was “overblown.” Insofar as the 216 documented incursions since 1996 aren’t reconnaissance units preparing for a coming invasion, Mr. Chertoff is probably correct. But Monday’s standoff between U.S. and Texas law enforcers and men dressed as Mexican Army soldiers suggests the secretary’s unenthusiastic response is a bit underblown.
The confrontation occurred along the Rio Grande 50 miles from El Paso, Texas. As state deputies pursued three SUVs smuggling narcotics, they encountered on the U.S. side of the river several men in Mexican military uniforms operating a Humvee armed with .50-caliber machine guns. When one of the SUVs got stuck trying to cross the river, deputies said the “soldiers” helped offload what appeared to be bundles of marijuana and set the truck ablaze. No shots were fired. This follows an incident in November, when Border Patrol agents attempting to off-load a truck stuck in the river were challenged by armed men also dressed in Mexican military uniforms.
Yet if these brigands are Mexican military, then the international incident has already happened. Under such circumstances, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice should call in Mexican Ambassador Carlos de Icaza and formally express our government’s deepest concerns. At the very least, the Bush administration must assure the public that we will not be out-gunned on our own soil.
A Texas border sheriff yesterday demanded that the U.S. and Mexican governments investigate incursions into the United States by heavily armed drug escorts dressed in Mexican military uniforms “before someone gets killed.”
Zapata County Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez Jr., who heads the Texas Sheriff’s Border Coalition, said a growing number of suspected incursions and violence aimed at the area’s law-enforcement officers is making the border “a pretty dangerous place.”
“We have tried everything we know to make the federal government aware of the problems at the border and how they have affected us,” said Sheriff Gonzalez, who has fewer than two dozen deputies to patrol 1,000 square miles, including 60 miles of Texas-Mexico border.
“It appears our government is covering this thing up because it just doesn’t want to admit there is a problem,” he said. “Trade between the United States and Mexico may be more important to Washington than human lives.”
Yesterday, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican, said she was “deeply concerned” about the possible incursions and asked Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to “fully investigate this matter and report to Congress the details and confirm whether or not Mexican military officials were involved.
“But make no mistake—this is only a symptom of a much larger problem,” she said. “Even after September 11, our nation’s borders remain porous. We must take bold action in securing our borders.”
The Mexican government has denied that the men in any of the incidents were soldiers, saying that some drug smugglers dress in military-style uniforms, carry automatic weapons and drive military-style vehicles.
Sheriff Gonzalez said he could not confirm that the men were soldiers, but said he was skeptical of the denials by the Mexican government. He described the suspected soldiers as “very military looking, clean cut and in good physical condition—not your average drug smuggler.”
“When you spot a Humvee with military paint on it and a .50 caliber machine gun, this leads you to suspect that it’s not a vehicle being used by drug lords,” Sheriff Gonzalez said.