Investigation: Crossed Lines

Arivaca, Arizona

APRIL 22, 2005. 11:30 A.M.

  1. D. AYERS HEARS THE whomp-whomp-whomp of rotor blades, leaves the house,and looks to the sky. There’s a Huey looking chopper flying low, coming outof the south, circling the ranch. It’s not Customs — they fly the bigger Blackhawks. And it’s not the Border Patrol— they fly the smaller Cayuses and Eurocopters.

So who is it?

Ayers hears something else. Looks to the sound. There’s a Tucson Fuel Co. truck driving up to refill the ranch’s fuel tanks, the Tres Bellotas Ranch being 13 miles south of anywhere with regular gas service and right up against the Arizona-Sonora border.

The Huey banks and swoops low over the tanker truck. Ayers sees six guys inside, dressed in black. Or maybe they’re just silhouetted against the blue sky.

The helicopter lands and Ayers walks over. The ranch’s owner, a veterinarian, is out and Ayers is there visiting a sick dog. Ayers knows there are a couple of Spanish-speaking ranch hands out on Tres Bellotas’ spread, but he figures the helicopter is from the National Guard or one of the other alphabet soup of agencies that work around the border. There needs to be an English speaker there to find out why they’ve landed.

Ayers rounds a corner. The six men in the helicopter have deployed. All have masks over their faces.

Five of them are in full assault body armor, arrayed in a defensive position—rifles out—around the sixth man. Ayers sees the word “MEXICO” on their sleeves.

¿Habla Inglés? Ayers asks in his border Spanish. Does anyone speak English?


 ¿Quiénes son usted? Who are you?

Policía Mexicano. Mexican police.

Usted está en los Estados Unidos, no en México. Usted tiene que irse. You’re in the United States, not Mexico. You have to leave.

The man in charge ignores Ayers. He points at the fuel truck and starts walking towards it.

Ayers positions himself between the men and truck, walking backwards. The leader of the men in black tells Ayers the ranch is owned by someone that Ayers has never heard of. Ayers tells him the name of the ranch’s owner, the veterinarian, and tells him again that the man, his troops, and his helicopter have to leave. This is the United States.

Twice more, the man in black asks Ayers about the truck. Twice more, Ayers gives the same answer.

Finally, the man in black turns around and motions to his men. Ayers sees a name on the back of their tactical vests: AFI. The men get back in their helicopter and fly off to the south. Ayers is left standing on Tres Belottas with the fuel truck driver, heart pounding, wondering what just happened.

The U.S-Mexico border has always been a dangerous place, dating back to the Chiricahua Apaches dashing into Mexico after raiding U.S. ranches. But the violence has grown in recent years as the stakes have gotten higher and as the border has increasingly fallen under the influence of human- and drug-smuggling cartels. It’s created a dangerous, shadowy world of violence, and unbelievable stories. A Forest Service ranger who won’t visit certain parts of his forest without an escort. A man and his son running into a line of drug-hauling immigrants— mules—while bow-hunting in the mountains outside Tucson. Mexican army troops crossing the United States border to escort drug loads.

The last one—Mexican military or paramilitary troops crossing the border—is the latest wrinkle in the nation’s difficulties in securing its southern borders.

It’s been an ongoing problem—one congressman documented more than 60 crossings between 1995 and 1999—but what’s changed is how brazen the crossings have become. A confidential Department of Homeland Security study found 261 crossings by suspected military or police organizations between fiscal years 1996 and 2005. In at least three cases since 2000, the crossers have been confirmed to be in the employ of the Mexican government. In two of those cases, the soldiers fired on Border Patrol agents.

Often, the smuggling cartels have better equipment than the Border Patrol or other agencies working the border. (“I know the smugglers have encrypted communications,” a veteran ranger says. “I know I don’t.”) They often have a better idea of how far away backup is than U.S. law enforcement does.

There have been congressional hearings in which county sheriff’s deputies have talked about a Humvee with a .50-caliber machine gun mounted on the back providing cover for infantrymen doing a flanking maneuver while drug runners offloaded bales of marijuana from a truck that got stuck trying to recross the Rio Grande. There have been denials by the Mexican government, accusations of racism, and lies. At  one point, the Mexican foreign minister, Luis Ernesto Derbez, implied that perhaps an incident in which suspected Mexican troops crossed the border to defend a drug load was actually corrupt American soldiers.

The topic is a sore spot with the United States government, because it involves alleging that a strategic ally’s military is corrupt and actively breaking American laws.

“It’s our ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’” groans a Border Patrol official. There’s an unofficial gag order within the ranks about discussing the issue; agents involved in the incidents are reticent to discuss them for fear of being punished. Phone calls to agency spokesmen about the issue are not returned. There’s another problem, too, that doesn’t really get discussed. If a Border Patrol agent returns fire after being shot at by someone in civilian clothes, it is, purely, a shooting. If the person is in assault gear, that person might be a soldier. And then you have an international incident.

The incidents add to the ethereal, violent weirdness of the border area. It comes down to this: On the U.S.-Mexico border, how do you really know what the hell you saw?

Take Ayers’s incident. He claims he saw a military Huey. But how can he be sure it wasn’t a Bell 206 or a Bell 412, both of which are civilian variants of the UH-1 Huey. Even though the U.S. has given 21 Hueys to Mexico to help in drug interdiction—five of them based in Sonora state in 2005—how can Ayers be sure exactly what he saw? The men in black assault gear with “MEXICO” patches on their arms and “AFI” labels on their vest could have been with the AFI—the Mexican acronym for the Federal Investigative Agency, the Mexican anti-drug trafficking organization. Or they could have been U.S.- trained commandos who defected from the Mexican military in 2000 to go to work for a large drug cartel.

Or maybe they’re something entirely different.

This is the border, after all, and only two things are assured: violence and ambiguity.

The Hudspeth County Problem

Neely’s Crossing, Texas. January 23, 2006. 2 P.M.

Esequiel Legaratta, a deputy with the Hudspeth County Sheriff’s Office, is bouncing down a dirt road 50 miles west of El Paso. He’s chasing a suspected drug load through the Texas scrub country, headed south back towards the Rio Grande. Legaretta got a tip on this load coming through, but then someone blurted out the information on the radio and the drug runners found out and got spooked.

They took off from the highway and onto Farm Market Road 192 at over 100 miles per hour.

The sheriff’s dispatcher asks the Border Patrol for help. “If they are that worried about getting a load bad enough they are willing to risk their lives for it, then that’s on them,” the shift supervisor at the local Border Patrol substation radios back.

The drug cars are driving hell for leather down a dirt road, not far from the border. Legaretta’s gaining ground when he comes around a turn. One of the suspected drug cars is already across the Rio Grande, climbing up the Mexican bank. And then Legaretta sees it—a Humvee parked on the American side of the levee road. A guy is in the back in olive drab fatigues with a cap on, holding a heavy-caliber machine gun mounted on a tripod. There’s another guy with the Humvee, the driver. Dressed the same but holding a smaller weapon. The last of the suspected drug cars climbs over the levee and the Humvee follows. A moment later, another Humvee appears on the Mexican side. Legaretta, a Marine reservist, watches uniformed men pile out, move into the brush, and take up firing positions. More men come, dressed in civilian clothes, armed with long rifles.

While Legaretta, another deputy, and a Texas Department of Public Safety officer watch, the men try to get one of the suspected drug trucks out of the riverbed, where it’s mired. When they can’t—the efforts included trying to pull it out with one of the Humvees and one of the other drug vehicles pushing it from behind—the men in civilian clothes offload the bales of marijuana from the back of the truck and then set the vehicle aflame.

There’s an aftermath, of course. After this incident hit the media—Hudspeth County Sheriff Arvin West and his deputies testified before the House Committee on Homeland Security on February 7—the spotlight was on Hudspeth. One day, the wife of one of the deputies involved in the chase was taking out the garbage when a large SUV pulled up next to her.

“Tell your husband to stay off the river,” the driver said. “Or else.”

And then he sped away.

“Of the 1,200 crimes committed in the county last year,” Sheriff West says, “between 1,100 and 1,150 were directly related to the border. You know Andy Griffith’s ‘Mayberry’ on TV? If you erased the international border from the county, we’d be Mayberry.”

But of course, you can’t erase the Rio Grande out of the state. And that’s why Hudspeth County has become the recent epicenter of the apparent Mexican military incursions into the country.

The county, just west of El Paso, iswest Texas. It’s brown and green desert scrub and tamales at Christmas. It’s lonely spaces and random stations picked up through static on the car radio. It’s Texan-sized. You could take the state of Rhode Island and plop it down there and still have room around the edges. And for a county of 5,000 square miles— including about 100 miles of international border—there are a total of 12 sheriff’s deputies. Such a low number of officers is not uncommon in the Rio Grande country. But with the border getting harder, Hudspeth County is understaffed and overwhelmed.

Hudspeth County is not alone. With illegal immigration from the south on the rise, it’s the nation’s border counties that are taking it on the chin.

Prosecuting and jailing illegal immigrants in Cochise County, Arizona, for example, costs the county $5 million of its $49 million annual budget. Hudspeth County itself sits at a confluence—an easy border crossing, low staffing levels, and the drug cartels nearly always having more firepower than the local police.

There was another incident a few months earlier in Hudspeth: after a chase, drug smugglers had abandoned a dump truck full of an estimated 10,000 pounds of marijuana on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande. The cops had unloaded about 1,800 pounds worth when heavily armed men in Mexican military uniforms came across the river and took over the scene, attaching a tow cable to the front of the dump truck and pulling the truck across the river while the outmanned and outgunned U.S. law enforcement officers at the scene could only sit and watch.

Those incidents don’t include the number of times Hudspeth County deputies or state Department of Public Safety officers have pulled over truckloads of Mexican soldiers who have crossed the Rio Grande illegally to head to the Tiger Truck Stop on Interstate 10 to get food and sodas.

And it doesn’t include the very strange case of the lost Mexican customs officer.

This March, one of Sheriff West’s deputies pulled over a man in a Mexican customs service uniform driving along Interstate 10, which parallels the Rio Grande at a distance of two or three miles through much of the county.

The man told the deputy that he was a Mexican customs officer. And that he was lost. The deputy brought the man in to the sheriff’s office in Sierra Blanca. They went through his car: A bedroll. A couple changes of clothing. A GPS rig. And lots of maps. The man crossed the border legally—Hudspeth County officials were able to track him coming over the bridge at El Paso two days earlier.

“I called his comandante in Juarez,” West says, “and he said, ‘He does work for me,’ but he was awful  curious about what his man was doing driving the interstate.

“Personally, it looked to me like he was GPSing the roads off the highway that run to the river”—i.e., scouting escape routes back into Mexico.

There’s a postscript to the jeep-in-the-Rio Grande story. Once the issue hit the media, the Mexican government became apoplectic. “We totally reject any assumption that pretends to involve the Mexican army in this incident,” Juan Carlos Foncerrada Berumen, the consul general in El Paso, told the El Paso Times.

No military units were operating in the area, they said. And besides, the Mexican military isn’t supposed to be within three miles of the border. It was drug gangs, they said, and offered up four suspects.

There’s another postscript: A week later, a Hudspeth County deputy and a camera crew from the Fox affiliate in El Paso were out at Neely’s Crossing.

They watched Mexican soldiers cross the river into the United States. Mexican officials said those soldiers were investigating the earlier incident, but gave no explanation as to why their troops crossed the border.

Two months after the original incident, David Aguilar, the Border Patrol’s chief, said he was convinced the incident did not involve the Mexican military. He had seen evidence, he said, that cleared them.

“About that,” West says, “we had a meeting of the Texas Border Sheriff’s Coalition right after the chief made that statement. I went up to the BICE [Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement] representative and said if there’s evidence, I’d like written proof of it.

“I haven’t seen it yet.”

Coming Across the Border

Outside Nogales, Arizona. June 30, 2005. 12:15 P.M.

The partners went down, one after the other, blood coming out of the holes in their green duty pants. Each shot in the leg, bleeding out in the Arizona dust just 20 yards north of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Two Border Patrol agents down. The radio call went through, electrifying southern Arizona. SWAT teams pile into trucks, helicopters, driving south. Two shooters, suspected drug mules, still pinning down the agents. The agents had been tracking the mules. They’d gotten an Oscar hit—one of the electronic bugs the Border Patrol plants in the ground had sensed pressure.

The two agents were dispatched. They went down Duquesne Road outside of Nogales, where there is nothing but cattle guards and spiny mountains. One of the agents saw them inside the U.S., 20 yards or so north of the border. Two possible drug mules, hightailing towards the line, dressed like cholos, gang members. One of them was carrying a highpowered rifle. The guy saw the agent and started shooting.

The agent takes what cover he can find, but the truth is there isn’t much on Duquesne Road in southern Arizona in July when the sun is at its height and the guys shooting at you are on higher ground. The agent pulls out his .40 caliber pistol and starts returning fire. He empties a 15-round magazine. He can hear the bullets hitting around them, he can see them ricochet off the ground. He’s changing magazines for the pistol. He’s on the radio to his partner and his supervisor. Pinned down. Need help.

Then— something in his lower right leg. Overwhelming pain.

His partner’s on the radio. He’s under fire, too.

Man down. Man down.

Later, the supervisor will tell investigators he saw four men, all dressed in black or dark-colored military type clothing. They were making their way back to Mexico.

Were they military?

Who knows?

“The problem is that you can’t prove it or disprove it,” said Roderic Ai Camp, a professor at Claremont College and one of the few people to actually study the Mexican military. “How do you say it’s one or the other?”

In at least one case, it can be proved. And in another case, it’s suspected.

The proven case happened in Santa Teresa, New Mexico.

It was March 14, 2000. Two Humvees have just broken the border fence near Santa Teresa, New Mexico, after seeing a Border Patrol (BP) vehicle. One of the Humvees follows the BP truck down a dirt road, to a barn where the BP stables its horses. Soldiers pile out. The BP agent in the truck calls for backup. Lights flashing, sirens blaring. Sunland Park, New Mexico police, the closest law enforcement come in. Three vehicles. The commander of the Mexican detachment thinks he’s in Mexico. He’s not. The cops and the BP talk him down. He and his men surrender their weapons. He was chasing a drug smuggler, he tells police.

The other Humvee, though, that’s where the problem is. It’s been spotted by a BP agent on horseback. He identifies himself, yells at them to stop. They yell at him to stop, start following him. They shoot. The agent and the horse cut through the brush and into a draw. Call for backup.

Another BP agent on horseback sees what’s happening. The soldiers in the Humvee see him and start pursuing him. He identifies himself, they keep coming. Their Humvee gets stuck in a sand dune on the north side of the border. BP agents are all around, swarming. It’s a standoff. Everyone’s shouting. They’re in the U.S. They’re in Mexico.

Everything’s confused. Two soldiers in the Humvee get out and make a run for the border. A BP agent spotlights them with his flashlight. Someone shoots at the BP agent.

Cooler heads prevail. The soldiers are processed as undocumented immigrants and sent back to Mexico. They were part of a special federal antidrug patrol, the Mexican government said. They were new to the border and didn’t know the area.

On October 24, 2000, Border Patrol agents who had just climbed out of a marked BP helicopter were fired on in Copper Canyon, east of San Diego. The agency issued a terse press release: an unknown group of people entered Copper Canyon. Border Patrol agents identified themselves and then called for backup after gunshots were heard. But the Border Patrol union local issued a different statement: the men who crossed into Copper Canyon were wearing military BDUs. They established sniper positions.

They were armed with rifles and bayonets. They called for the agents to come out of the brush where they had taken cover.

The chief of the Border Patrol’s San Diego sector said there might never be proof the group of men actually crossed the border.

If you’re looking for answers, there are none. The Mexican government claims—has always claimed—that these are drug smugglers who are dressed up. It blamed the January incident in Hudspeth County on drug cartels.

Enlisted service in the Mexican army is only a step up if you’re dirt poor. The low pay and the bad conditions contributed to a 9 percent desertion rate in 2005 (the U.S. military had a rate under 1 percent). The U.S. Army, in a now-declassified assessment of the Mexican military of the 1990s, described the situation thusly:

“The Mexican environment is relatively favorable for the conduct of intelligence operations by the US Armed Forces,” the report read. “Bribery and other forms of corruption are widespread through Mexico, giving foreign intelligence services numerous opportunities to recruit sources.”

It’s not an exact analogy, but it describes the same basic motivation—money talks. In fact, Mexico’s chief anti-drug officer in the 1990s was convicted of working for one of the cartels. Even the new agency, the AFI, is not immune. Last year, the chief of the agency’s office in the Caribbean-side state of Quintana Roo was charged with protecting the drug trafficking business.

Defections out of the Mexican military aren’t unheard of, either. Earlier this decade, the Mexican army’s Special Airmobile Forces Group, an elite, U.S.-trained rapid deployment force, defected en masse to the Gulf cartel. Now known as “Los Zetas,” the group is suspected in at least 600 border-related deaths and is believed to be operating in at least six U.S. states. Published reports in the last few years have linked Los Zetas with training camps run by former members of the Guatemalan special forces, the Kabiles.

So it’s entirely possible those folks spotted coming across protecting drug loads are some kingpin’s personal army. That assumption may be reasonable considering that real troops getting caught using army equipment to smuggle drugs would most likelyforce an inquiry, which would be bad for everyone, even for a corrupt commander.

Or it may just be the cholos with a U.S. Cavalry catalog. Getting high-powered weapons in Mexico and Central America doesn’t take much effort. Getting BDUs and night-vision goggles requires an Internet connection and a credit card. And so it might just be gang kids with guns.

No one really knows the answers. When acknowledged Mexican troops have come across, the Mexican government has said they were lost. After the Hudspeth County incidents, the Mexican high command announced army units would be moved back from the border.

A few weeks later, Rick Glancey, the interim executive director of the Texas Border Sheriffs Coalition, was out along the border with some of the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office narco guys.

“We saw the Mexican military over there on the Mexican side of the river in what we know is a known narcotics trafficking area,” Glancey said. “They were in their uniforms and with their rifles over their shoulder. “If it’s not the Mexican military involved in narcotics trafficking, then who is it? And if someone else is doing it, wouldn’t the Mexican authorities want to stop them?”

The American Spectator
June 2006