Congressmen want war equipment sent to Southwest border
April 3, 2012 | G.W. Schulz

Two members of Congress and several sheriffs in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico are calling on the U.S. Department of Defense to send military equipment returning from Afghanistan and Iraq to local law enforcement agencies on the Southwest border. The congressmen, Democrat Henry Cuellar and Republican Ted Poe, both of Texas, wrote a letter [PDF] last month to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta citing an ongoing security threat on the border from drug cartel operations. Although the lawmakers concede that border security is primarily a federal responsibility, they insist state and local police could benefit from wartime gear.

“With the drawdown of U.S. troops and equipment in Iraq, and our role in Afghanistan winding down, it is to be expected that in the next few years there will be a significant amount of surplus equipment that will become available that could be extremely beneficial for border security operations,” states the letter, which adds that state and local police departments also are facing budget shortfalls. California Watch reported last week that agencies across the Golden State have used one such program since the early 1990s to acquire more than $259 million in cast-off military equipment for free. Detailed data obtained and analyzed by California Watch listed everything from M16 rifles to bayonet knives, ammunition cans, armored personnel carriers, bath mats and water canteens. (Search the data here.)

The sheriff of San Joaquin County last year scored a full-tracked tank that his office has since chosen to return because it didn’t meet “mission needs.” Several counties have received helicopters and other aircraft. Civilian police departments are responsible for maintaining and storing the equipment, which they can peruse and request online. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department so frequently uses the program that it has a whole team of people dedicated to getting the excess military gear with the help of four long-haul semitrailers that criss-cross the country picking it up. California police scooped up more of the equipment last year than ever before in the program’s two-decade history, going after 163,344 new and used items valued at more than $26 million. Dollar amounts are based on what the military initially paid.

The letter from Poe and Cuellar reflects an ongoing sense that security on the border requires a military-style approach, even if civilian law enforcement agencies have a much different mission than the military. The Texas Department of Public Safety is in the process of acquiring “interceptor” gunboats, reportedly with fully automatic machine guns, bulletproof shielding and night-vision capabilities. They operate similarly to swift boats used by the Navy during the Vietnam War. Local and state police already are pushing aggressively for the use of pilotless drones domestically.

The Texas department also purportedly has more than a dozen state-of-the-art helicopters and tactical strike teams that are engaged in a “counterinsurgency” against Mexican drug cartels. “It certainly is a war in a sense that we’re doing what we can to protect Texans and the rest of the nation from clearly a threat that has emerged over the last several years,” Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, told Fox News in late 2010. And last year, Texas hired two former generals to conduct a strategic military assessment [PDF] of the border that, among other things, recommended more participation from the National Guard and lauded the Department of Public Safety’s “military-like operational campaign against narco-terrorists.”

“Texas is the tactical close combat zone and frontline in this conflict,” the report says. “Texans have been assaulted by cross-border gangs and narco-terrorist activities.” Fourteen sheriffs from Texas, along with two from New Mexico and Arizona, signed the letter from Poe and Cuellar asking that surplus military equipment be given a new life in the U.S. for the benefit of police on the border. “For years, the American people have invested their money in equipment that has been used to defend the borders of other nations,” Poe wrote in a March 25 statement. “It’s time that we use this equipment to secure the United States.”


WASHINGTON (CNN) — Authorities have found what they call the largest and most sophisticated tunnel running into the United States along the Mexican border. The tunnel contained 2 tons of marijuana, stacked in bales, according to a statement issued by the Justice Department. DEA and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents discovered the tunnel Wednesday night. It runs from Tijuana, Mexico, to Otay Mesa, California. Officials said the tunnel is about seven-tenths of a mile (1,148 meters) or more than 1,200 yards long. Initial reports said it is 5 feet high and 3.5 feet wide. Authorities said they believe the passageway originates under a warehouse about 150 yards south of the border and surfaces about a half-mile north of the border in another warehouse. Made of concrete, the passageway had lighting, electricity, ventilation and a pump to remove water, said Lauren Mack, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Most of the marijuana was uncovered on the Mexican side, but some of it was in the United States, Mack said.

Tightened border security since the September 11, 2001, attacks is the likely cause for an increase in U.S. to Mexico tunneling, Mack said. At least 15 tunnels have been found in California and Arizona since 9/11, she said. “We’ve now got a dedicated tunnel task force, which works with the [Drug Enforcement Administration] and border patrol to proactively look for tunnels,” Mack explained.


Mexican soldiers and civilian smugglers had an armed standoff with nearly 30 U.S. law enforcement officials on the Rio Grande in Texas Monday afternoon, according to Texas police and the FBI.

Mexican military Humvees were towing what appeared to be thousands of pounds of marijuana across the border into the United States, said Chief Deputy Mike Doyal, of the Hudspeth County Sheriff’s Department. Mexican Army troops had several mounted machine guns on the ground more than 200 yards inside the U.S. border — near Neely’s Crossing, about 50 miles east of El Paso — when Border Patrol agents called for backup. Hudspeth County deputies and Texas Highway patrol officers arrived shortly afterward, Doyal said.

“It’s been so bred into everyone not to start an international incident with Mexico that it’s been going on for years,” Doyal said. “When you’re up against mounted machine guns, what can you do? Who wants to pull the trigger first? Certainly not us.” An FBI spokeswoman confirmed the incident happened at 2:15 p.m. Pacific Time. “Bad guys in three vehicles ended up on the border,” said Andrea Simmons, a spokeswoman with the FBI’s El Paso office. “People with Humvees, who appeared to be with the Mexican Army, were involved with the three vehicles in getting them back across.” Simmons said the FBI was not involved and referred inquiries to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE did not return calls seeking comment. Doyal said deputies captured one vehicle in the incident, a Cadillac Escalade reportedly stolen from El Paso, and found 1,477 pounds of marijuana inside. The Mexican soldiers set fire to one of the Humvees stuck in the river, he said.

Doyal said such incidents are common at Neely’s Crossing, which is near Fort Hancock, Texas, and across from the Mexican state of Chihuahua. “It happens quite often here,” he said. Deputies and border patrol agents are not equipped for combat, he added. On Wednesday, Chertoff played down the reports of border incursions by the Mexican military. He suggested many of the incursions could have been mistakes, blaming bad navigation by military personnel or attributing the incursions to criminals dressed in military garb.




“It is known that these are drug traffickers using military uniforms and they were not even regulation military uniforms,” said Mexican presidential spokesman Ruben Aguilar.

Crawford added that investigations in Mexico were difficult to conduct because the honest Mexican residents didn’t want to put their own lives in danger by giving law enforcement officials information on the drug cartels. “The drug trade is too lucrative,” Crawford said. “Mexican soldiers and police officials are paid little. So it’s just too tempting. With the increased efficiency and effort along the border, narcotics traffickers can bring in whatever they want. And if you go against them they’ll kill you.”


Mexico’s top diplomat suggested Thursday that American soldiers disguised as Mexican troops may have been in the military-style Humvee filmed earlier this week protecting a marijuana shipment on the border. Foreign Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez also told a news conference that U.S. soldiers had helped drug smugglers before. However, he offered no evidence.

Monday’s armed standoff began 50 miles east of El Paso, Texas, when Texas state police tried to stop three sport utility vehicles on Interstate 10. The vehicles made a quick U-turn and headed south toward the border, a few miles away. Crossing the border, one SUV got stuck in the Rio Grande River, and men in a Humvee tried in vain to tow it out. Then a group of men in civilian clothes began unloading what appeared to be bundles of marijuana and torched the SUV before fleeing.

Mexico insisted Wednesday that the men in military-style uniforms were drug smugglers, not soldiers. In Mexico, kidnappers and drug smugglers regularly wear police gear, which is sold at street stands. Derbez said Thursday that the men photographed by Texas law enforcement could have been Americans. “Members of the U.S. Army have helped protect people who were processing and transporting drugs,” Derbez said. “And just as that has happened … it is very probable that something like that could have happened, that in reality they were members of some of their groups disguised as Mexican soldiers with Humvees.” Three U.S. soldiers have pleaded guilty to running a cocaine smuggling ring from a U.S. base in Colombia, and a fourth is being tried in Texas this week.


The Mexican military has crossed into the United States 216 times in the past nine years, according to a Department of Homeland Security document and a map of incursions obtained by the Daily Bulletin. U.S. officials claim the incursions are made to help foreign drug and human smugglers cross safely into the United States. The 2001 map, which shows 34 of the incursions, bears the seal of the president’s Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The document states that since 1996, Mexican military personnel have crossed into the following Border Patrol sectors:

• San Diego County, 17 times
• El Centro, 58
• Yuma, Ariz., 24
• Tucson, Ariz., 39
• El Paso, Texas, 33
• Marfa, Texas, 8
• Del Rio, Texas, 3
• Laredo, Texas, 6
• Rio Grande Valley, Texas, 28

White House officials would not comment on the map and referred questions to officials at the Department of Homeland Security.


In the Tucson sector — where many border agents reported run-ins with Mexican military — the U.S. Department of Customs and Border Protection formally issued a card to agents with tips on how to deal with incursions by Mexican soldiers. The Daily Bulletin first reported of the card last year.

The ‘‘Military Incursion” card states that ‘‘Mexican Military are trained to escape, evade, and counter-ambush if it will effect their escape.” Further, the card asks agents who come across Mexican soldiers to keep a low profile and use shadows to camouflage and hide. ‘‘Down here, there are war stories where you have Mexican military pulling up when drug traffickers are coming across, cocking their weapons, challenging our guys,” he said ‘‘Shots have been fired. … This is a problem here. I don’t think anybody understands it unless they’re here.”





MEXICO CITY – A Mexican government commission said Tuesday it will distribute at least 70,000 maps showing highways, rescue beacons and water tanks in the Arizona desert to curb the death toll among illegal border crossers. The National Human Rights Commission, a government-funded agency with independent powers, denied the maps — similar to a comic-style guide booklet Mexico distributed last year — would encourage illegal immigration. Officials said the maps would help guide those in trouble find rescue beacons and areas with cell phone reception. The maps will also show the distance a person can walk in the desert in a single day.

“We are not trying in any way to encourage or promote migration,” said Mauricio Farah, one of the commission’s national inspectors. “The only thing we are trying to do is warn them of the risks they face and where to get water, so they don’t die.” Farah estimated that around 500 Mexicans died trying to cross the border in 2005. Many die in the desert, where summer temperatures soar above 100 degrees, and many drown while attempting to cross the Rio Grande river. The commission plans to hang the poster-size maps in March in places where migrants will see them, such as migrant-aid groups, the commission’s offices and in Mexican border towns.

They were designed by the Tucson, Ariz.-based rights group Humane Borders, which operates some of the desert water stations. The group previously distributed about 100 posters in the Mexican border town of Sasabe. The Rev. Robin Hoover, president of Humane Borders, said maps are needed in southern Mexico so migrants can weigh the risks before leaving home. Some of the posters have warnings, such as “Don’t go. There isn’t enough water,” but officials conceded many migrants were unlikely to heed the advice.

Farah said migration “is a human right” and that “the United States should be grateful” the commission is doing something to curb the death toll, because “hundreds of thousands of Mexicans help maintain their economy.” Mexicans working in the United States are a huge source of revenue for Mexico, sending home more than $16 billion in remittances in 2004, Mexico’s second largest source of foreign currency after oil exports according to the country’s central bank.


This poster released by the Humane Borders group on Tuesday Jan. 24, 2006, shows a map with migrant deaths (red dots) on the Arizona desert and warns that crossing through the desert is extremely dangerous. Mexico’s National Commisision for Human Rights has agreed to print and distribute these warning posters and maps as a way of informing migrants of the actual dangers in the desert and as a way of assisting migrants in making responsible decisions.


The shoes, which sell for $215, come equipped with a compass and flashlight. A map of the U.S.-Mexico border region is printed on the removable insole, and the shoe’s tongue can hold money or pain relievers.

The artist interviewed migrants, aid workers and immigrant smugglers in her research. The interviews led to the creation of the hidden pocket, because migrants are often robbed; the flashlight, because people often cross the border in the dark; and the compass and map, because migrants often get lost in the desert.

Werthein calls the shoes “Brinco,” which means “jump” in Spanish. It’s what migrants call the act of crossing the border into the United States. Last weekend, Werthein was in Tijuana, where she gave away 50 pairs of shoes at a migrant shelter. Only 1,000 pairs of shoes were made. So far, 400 pairs have been sold or given away.

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