The Brewing Border Wars

  • Share
  • Read Later

U.S. Border Patrol agents frisk immigrants that were taken into custody near Laredo, Texas, Friday, Jan. 20, 2006

The month-long, bi-national celebration of George Washington's birthday recently began in Laredo, the Texas border town where debutantes and politicians gather to attend balls and watch the Mexican Army join the parade—the only place in the U.S., in fact, where a foreign army is allowed to march down the street. Parade organizers say the 108-year tradition is evidence of the close ties between Mexico and Texas, but those ties seem lately to be fraying as the 1,250-mile border becomes increasingly dangerous. To the east of Laredo, renegade Mexican Army commandos are part of the Zetas, a brutal drug smuggling gang, and Laredo's sister city, Nuevo Laredo, once a favorite spot among Texans for weekend shopping trips, has been wracked with kidnappings, political assassinations and even a shootout between police and drug gangs near an international bridge.

The border tension rose notably last week, in Hudspeth County, a 4,500-square-mile piece of rocky desert about 75 miles east of El Paso. It was there, according to Sheriff Arvin West, that his deputies faced off with members of the Mexican Army protecting drug smugglers. No shots were fired as the Mexicans abandoned their vehicles and withdrew back across the border, but West said there is no doubt in his mind that the machine-gun-toting men in fatigues guarding three SUVs filled with marijuana were members of the Mexican Army. "They had typical insignia. They had military caps and the positions they were taking flanking the vehicles was totally military—these were Mexican military personnel," Sheriff West told TIME.

The Mexican government has denied its military was involved, and its top diplomat even suggested the men could have been Americans wearing Mexican uniforms. But Mexico City has also ordered an investigation, and told all Army units to stay two kilometers, about a mile, back from the border. Meanwhile, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is running for reelection, has ordered his own inquiry. "This is not the first such incident," a spokesman for Gov. Perry said, while acknowledging that it is not clear the uniformed men were members of the Mexican Army. Lately Perry has been sounding alarms about the border situation, directing significant state funds to Operation Linebacker, a program developed by the Texas Sheriffs Border Coalition to increase patrols and engage the local community in their efforts. The U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Tony Garza, once the mayor of a Texas border town, said the Hudspeth County incident shows once again the Mexican government cannot police the border region. "It serves to bolster the arguments of those who seek the creation of physical barriers along our borders," he warned. The situation has gotten so tense along the border that members of the House Homeland Security subcommittee will visit the area Friday in advance of their planned hearings in Washington next week, at which border patrol officers and all 16 Texas border sheriffs will testify.

In the past, both Democratic and Republican state officials have talked about building bridges to Mexico, reflecting Texas' demographics and history. Democratic Gov. Ann Richards and her Republican successor Gov. George W. Bush each spoke softly on the issue of illegal immigration, supporting access to the state's public schools for the children of illegals working in Texas. But just as the President is now talking tougher about securing the border, calls for more federal surveillance and manpower assistance from border residents, including Hispanic officeholders, are growing.

Sheriff West, like other border sheriffs, patrols a vast area, some 4,500 square miles, with just 12 deputies. There are about 3,000 people in Hudspeth County, 75 percent of them Hispanic with ties on both sides of the "creek," as West calls the often-dry Rio Grande riverbed. But the days when residents went safely back and forth across the county's 90-mile stretch along the Rio Grande are gone, West said.

Hudspeth County is not a major crossing point for illegal immigrants; the terrain is too unforgiving and there are more direct ways to get to labor markets in Dallas, Phoenix and Chicago. But marijuana smugglers bring in their crop grown in the nearby Chihuahua desert. West said his men confiscated 300,000 pounds last year and "that was just what we caught." "It used to be cat-and-mouse," West said, and the only weapon most smugglers had "were two fast feet." Now, they are armed with high-powered weapons and, West believes, are getting protection from Mexican Army units who camp in the desert just across the border.

Sheriff West says he has a good relationship with the local officials on the Mexican side, but says he senses a growing anti-American feeling in the area. As for the sentiment in Washington, West said the federal government is in denial about the level of border violence, sort of "like having a pregnant daughter and saying she doesn't fool around."