Mexico's Lawless Border Presents Washington With Its Biggest Test

Two events last month on the Mexican border, one in Texas and one in California, highlight the challenge the U.S. faces on our Southern border. They illustrate how not only vulnerable our border is but also why it is difficult to fix the problem. Mexico won’t or can’t control its side of the border, and the U.S. doesn’t want to embarrass Mexico by admitting that fact publicly.

On the afternoon of January 23, three SUVs crossed from Mexico into Texas 50 miles southeast of El Paso at a shallow place in the Rio Grande called Neely’s Crossing by the locals. The three SUVs were spotted two miles from the river near Interstate 10 by Hudspeth County sheriff deputies. When the deputies gave chase, the SUVs turned around and headed back to the river. This happened in broad daylight, not under the cloak of darkness.

At the river crossing, the sheriff deputies observed a military-style Humvee with a mounted 50-caliber machine gun waiting for the caravan on the U.S. side of the river. One SUV blew a tire short of the river and was abandoned by the smugglers. It was later found to contain 1477 pounds of marijuana. A second vehicle made it across the river, but the third got stuck. A dozen men in battle dress uniforms and automatic rifles appeared on the Mexican side and proceeded to help unload a dozen or more bales of contraband from the marooned SUV.

The Texas sheriff deputies and state highway patrol were helpless to stop the recovery of the contraband because they were outgunned and outmanned. After unloading their cargo, the Mexicans set fire to the SUV and left it burning in the riverbed. All of this was photographed by Hudspeth County sheriff deputies.

In Tijuana, Mexico, two days later, a sophisticated tunnel was found under the U.S.–Mexico border, running 800 yards from near the Tijuana airport to a warehouse on the U.S. side. The warehouse had two trucks and a van inside, and the tunnel contained several tons of marijuana. Authorities said that four tunnels had been uncovered in California in recent months. This latest one has a cement floor, lighting, and is large enough for people to walk through. We do not yet know how long the tunnel had been in operation.

Texas’s Hudspeth County Sheriff Arvin West is certain the Humvee with a mounted machine gun seen at Neely’s Crossing and the dozen men in military style uniforms were Mexican military. He has lived on the border all his life, speaks Spanish fluently and has had considerable interface with Mexican military and Mexican police over the years.

The U.S. Border Patrol has seen dozens of similar Mexican military incursions into the U.S., which often occur in connection with drug smuggling. Many of the sixteen county sheriffs who make up the Texas Border Sheriffs Coalition can tell stories about similar incidents along the Rio Grande involving the Mexican military. There have been over 200 documented incursions by Mexican military or police from 1996 through 2005 according to the Department of Homeland Security, and several Border Patrol agents have been wounded in these encounters.

The reaction of the Mexican government to the reports of the incident was predictable — a mixture of denial, confusion and evasion. At first, they said that there are no Humvees in the arsenal of the Mexican military in that region and that the smugglers were using stolen military equipment and uniforms. Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Derbez had the chutzpah to say the smugglers may have been U.S. military disguised as Mexicans.

The Mexican government also announced that military forces have now been ordered not to go within three kilometers of the border. This raises the question of who is supposed to be policing the border on the Mexican side if the military has been withdrawn. The municipal police departments in most Mexican border towns — from Matamoros to Ciudad Juarez, Agua Prieta to Tijuana — are riddled with individuals on the payroll of the drug cartels.

Equally disturbing was the official U.S. response. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chetoff downplayed the significance of the event by saying that most Mexican military incursions over the years have been "accidental." The Border Patrol station in El Paso was told by headquarters to avoid speculation on the identity of the smugglers, and the El Paso FBI office said it is not part of any investigation. Sheriff West said a week after the event that no one in the FBI or any federal agency had yet contacted him as part of any investigation.

Let’s think about the ramifications of the official reactions by these two governments, the Mexican and the American. First, does the Mexican government really want to say to the world that the drug cartels can operate freely along the border with stolen military weapons, uniforms and Humvees and the Mexican military is powerless to stop them? Does it make a big difference if they are off-duty military assisting the smugglers? Are we supposed to find that acceptable, that drug cartels can operate freely within a three kilometer radius of the1900-mile international border?

On the U.S. side, does DHS and the State Department want us to believe that Hudspeth County law enforcement eyewitnesses are ignorant or incapable of identifying Mexican military vehicles and uniforms? Is Secretary Chertoff and the federal government in a state of wholesale denial about the extent of Mexican military corruption and involvement in the multi-billion dollar drug smuggling business? Of course not. The sad truth is that the FBI, DEA and Border Patrol know exactly what’s going on, but our federal government is more concerned about saving face for the Mexican government than telling the truth to the American people.

Let’s get real, folks. If Mexico is now admitting that it is unable to control the smuggling activity on its side of the border, then it is time for the U.S. to recognize this reality and change our policies accordingly. The first step is for the Border Patrol and local law enforcement in our 26 border counties to be given weapons that match the firepower of the drug cartels. The “Operation Linebacker” program now functioning in Texas needs to be expanded to all four of our border states. The Border Patrol should adopt new rules of engagement for confrontations with armed drug smugglers — it should at least be allowed to return fire when fired upon. Both the Border Patrol and local law enforcement should be allowed to engage in "hot pursuit" of smugglers caught in criminal activity on our side of the border.

Law enforcement officers should not have to endure the humiliation of standing by as mere observers while smugglers recover their cargo only 90 feet away, and Border Patrol agents must not be sitting ducks for snipers across the border. Texas law enforcement agencies are circulating intelligence reports that the drug cartels are preparing to become more aggressive in protecting their drug shipments from seizures by U.S. law enforcement. It is urgent that our first responders, the Border Patrol and local law enforcement, be given the tools and the weapons to defend themselves and accomplish their mission.

It is widely understood by local law enforcement agencies and the Border Patrol, as well as the FBI and the DEA, that high-ranking members of the the Mexican military in the border regions are often bribed to cooperate in the drug cartel’s smuggling operations. The corruption of law enforcement agencies within Mexico is pervasive in the border regions. Honest prosecutors, police officers and military commanders are under constant threat and are frequently the victims of assassinations.

With regard to the situation in Tijuana, a city long famous for "mordita" and deep-rooted corruption, it is hard to understand how 800-yard tunnels like the one discovered last week can be excavated, equipped and operated without the knowledge of Tijuana law enforcement. How many hundreds or thousands of illegal aliens of various nationalities are being smuggled into California through such tunnels? Blocking such tunnels is not only a matter of drug enforcement; it is a matter of national security. Perhaps the Border Patrol should have the right to search for tunnels jointly with Mexican authorities up to 1000 yards inside Mexico.

Local officials on the U.S. side of the border have begun to take steps to protect their communities from the incipient lawlessness spilling across the border as a direct result of the federal government’s neglect of border security. In Texas, sixteen border county sheriffs met in 2005 to organize the Texas Border Sheriffs Coalition to combat smuggling and escalating criminal violence. They are now coordinating closely with the Border Patrol and doing joint operations. Federal support for the coalition’s “Operation Linebacker” is part of the border security bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in December and now under consideration in the Senate.

The Mexican government must stop making excuses, stop treating crime as a public relations problem, and start dealing vigorously with the deep corruption in its border states. Perhaps the threat of an organized tourist boycott would get their attention. Americans could start spending their tourist dollars in Jamaica, Costa Rica and South Padre Island instead of Cancun, Acapulco and Cabo.

The most important thing is that our federal government must start leveling with the American people about the dangers and the scope of the problem. We must secure the border through whatever combination of physical barriers, technology and manpower that will get the job done. As a short-term solution, deploying the National Guard to back up the Border Patrol also makes a lot of sense.

Every U.S. law enforcement agency knows that many of these border incursions are not accidents. They are symptoms of a growing anarchy within Mexico and along our border. It is time for Secretary Chertoff and the President to wake up and confront the problem honestly.