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The violent new face of border smuggling

Photo by James TourtellotteIn America’s border ‘war zone,’ a U.S. Border Patrol agent is assaulted every eight hours

Border Patrol Agent Jose Morales has patrolled the same stretch of no-man’s-land in his unmarked SUV between Tijuana, Mexico and San Ysidro, Calif., hundreds of times. But the world seemed to stop around 9 a.m. one morning last month when a dispatcher broke through the radio chatter with a solemn announcement, “Border Patrol Agent Robert Rosas, you will never be forgotten.”

That morning―July 23―was the anniversary of the first on-duty death of a Border Patrol agent by gunfire in 12 years. Rosas was gunned down in a remote area some 60 miles east of San Diego by Christian Daniel Castro-Alvarez, then a 16-year-old Mexican citizen who was working with others to lure the 30-year-old father of two out of his patrol vehicle to rob him. Alvarez who pleaded guilty to the agent’s murder, was sentenced in San Diego Federal Court this May as an adult to 40 years in prison. His accomplices remain at large.

Chillingly, Rosas is not likely to be the last fatal victim.

“Rosas’ death hit us all pretty hard,” said Morales. “He was in a remote area when he was attacked, which is where many of our patrols are.”

Morales said the anxiety level is always present because agents never know if they will be confronted by three or 30 people crossing the border and how they will react to being stopped by the Border Patrol.

As the debate over securing U.S. borders heats up once again following Arizona’s controversial immigration law, one key element has been overlooked. Over the past four years there has been a significant increase in assaults against agents, primarily in the southwest sectors.

Officials are concerned enough to call for a re-examination of Border Patrol tactics, in the wake of the escalating violence along the U.S.-Mexican border.

T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, which serves as the union for more than 20,000 agents, says records show that an agent is being assaulted every eight hours.

‘The Wild West’

“This is the Wild West,” declares Bonner, adding that many injuries to agents have gone unreported.

The numbers bear out Bonner’s concerns. In 2006, there were 729 assaults against agents along the Mexican border from San Diego to the Rio Grande Sector in Texas. That number jumped in 2007 to 979, peaked at 1,085 in 2008, then slid slightly to 1,073 in 2009, the latest year for which records are available.

Bonner said the numbers for fiscal year 2010 are on track to surpass the 2008 high.

The San Diego Sector saw the highest amount of assaults, mainly because the San Ysidro crossing, the busiest in the U.S., went from 200 assaults in 2006 to a high of 337 in 2008. Tucson followed with a jump from 192 assaults in 2006 to 261 in 2009.

Why the increase? Bonner, ironically, calls it a product of success.

The stepped-up law enforcement presence along the border has frightened away many of the traditional traffickers who ferried undocumented workers into the U.S. But in their place has stepped “a much more violent breed of smugglers” connected with Mexico’s fierce drug cartels, he says.

According to Bonner, the well-armed and well-financed drug cartels have increasingly turned to the more lucrative —and comparatively less risky—business of human smuggling to cut losses suffered from increasingly fierce crackdowns on both sides of the border. Many have simply taken over or co-opted the entrepreneurial but comparatively unarmed organizations of “mules” that brought immigrants in by buses, trucks and remote trails through the mountains.

“Nothing, absolutely nothing, crosses these borders without someone paying the cartels,” said Bonner.

And along with corruption has come a ruthless style of violence that had rarely been associated with human smuggling in the past.

“The disturbing level of violence sometimes overshadows the national security risks along the border,” says Assistant FBI Director Kevin Perkins

One senior agent in the FBI’s El Paso field office likened the violence level of the cartels to Al Qaeda.

“The cartels here are often just as willing to resort to extreme brutality and bloodshed to carry out their objectives,” says the agent, who asked to remain anonymous..

In terms of reducing the flow of undocumented immigrants across the border, the get-tough strategy has been successful. The number of border apprehensions has been cut nearly in half in the southwest sector in just four years, from 1,171,396 in 2005 to 540,865 in 2009.

But even as agents are seeing fewer illegal crossings at the border, “the number of assaults is increasing,” said Senior Agent Valeria Morales (no relation to Joe Morales), who works out of the El Paso Sector just yards from Ciudad Juarez, the “Murder Capital of the World.”

The enlarged presence of the Border Patrol, now often the principal barrier standing between the cartels and their U.S. markets has frustrated the drug kingpin’s efforts to connect with wholesalers across the border―and forced them to adapt more aggressive methods, according to Morales.

Since 1994 the Border Patrol has not only stepped up its forces, but has put in place sophisticated technology such as strategically placed infrared and surveillance cameras, fences, and powerful lights. The federal strategy has received a boost from Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who deployed over 45,000 troops in border regions, starting in 2006, in an all-out war with the drug cartels.

Complicating the situation is Mexican authorities’ inability – or unwillingness—to stop them.

“The Mexican military and law enforcement is so corrupt you can’t trust them,” said Bonner, “We have video of Mexican police arresting a suspect in an agent assault only to let him go a few blocks away.”

Climate of Violence

The impunity with which the organized cartels are able to operate has also helped to create a general climate of violence.

Ironically, the weapon which accounts for the highest number of assaults against Border Patrol agents is the most primitive: rocks.

That led to one of the most notorious and controversial border incidents in recent months. A Juarez teenager was shot and killed on June 7 near a border-crossing bridge when an agent trying to detain an illegal crosser came under a shower of rocks, The victim, Sergio Adrian Hernandez, who had a history of smuggling arrests, was operating with a group of young people.

The FBI investigation of the incident is continuing, but border patrol agents say they are outraged that the U.S. Attorney has launched a civil rights investigation of the incident. Bonner calls it ‘ludicrous’ that a federal agent who was under assault from a foreigner “who has no civil rights” may be subject to charges.

“Rock throwing incidents occur frequently in the El Paso Sector due to our close proximity to Juarez, which is only 25-30 yards in some areas,” adds Valeria Morales.

In the El Paso Sector rock assaults went from seven in 2006 to 34 in 2008. There have already been 29 so far this year. To put this in perspective, she said, in 2008 the only other assault against an agent was physical. In 2010 there have been two physical confrontations and two weapons-related incidents.

“Rocks are dangerous weapons and should not be underestimated,” said Bonner who has seen his share of agents lose eyes, hearing and suffering chronic post-concussion syndrome as a result of rock attacks. One of Morales’ co-workers needed 37 stitches in the head following a rock assault.

And while rock-throwing may be considered by some critics to be a relatively minor offense, agents point out that it is closely connected with the general rise of organized criminal violence on the border.

According to Bonner and Morales, the smuggling organizations are encouraging rock-throwing as a way of diverting agents’ attention. Even though weapons are increasingly seen in the border areas, some consider it a less lethal form of intimidation―and one less likely to provoke a heavier crackdown from U.S. forces.

But it has only been a matter of luck, says Bonner, that a rock-throwing incident has so far not resulted in the death of an agent. The severity of the injuries, he adds, can’t be underestimated.

Even as the nation tries to re-calibrate its border-control efforts with strategies such as the recent plan to put more National Guard troops along the border, border patrol reps argue that the general approach needs to change in what they consider a “war zone.”

Bonner calls for the discontinuance of mounted, bike, and ATV patrols which he claims have left agents vulnerable, and he wants stiffer prosecution of assailants.

“We need to send a message it is not OK to assault a federal agent,” he said. “We need to adapt our tactics to the unbridled violence.”

Joe Kolb is publisher and editor of the Gallup (New Mexico) Herald

Photo by James Tourtellotte.

For an FBI update on Southwest border crime, click here...

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