news services
updated 1/25/2006 12:22:17 PM ET 2006-01-25T17:22:17

Mexico insisted Wednesday that men in Mexican military-style uniforms who crossed the Rio Grande River and sparked an armed confrontation with Texas law officers earlier this week were drug smugglers, not Mexican soldiers.

Mexico’s presidential spokesman Ruben Aguilar said the FBI supported that view, but he gave no evidence of the claim.

“These were not Mexican soldiers,” Aguilar said at a news conference. “It is known that these are drug traffickers using military uniforms and they were not even regulation military uniforms.”

Texas law enforcement officials confronted armed traffickers near the Rio Grande river on Monday as what looked like a Mexican military patrol assisted the marijuana smugglers as they escaped back into Mexico.

On U.S. side of border
Andrea Simmons, an FBI spokeswoman in El Paso, told The Associated Press that Texas Department of Public Safety troopers chased three SUVs, believing they were carrying drugs, to the banks of the Rio Grande during Monday's incident.

Men dressed in Mexican military uniforms or camouflage were on the U.S. side of the border in Texas, she said.

Simmons said the FBI was not involved and referred requests for further details to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The Inland Valley Daily Bulletin of Ontario, Calif., reported Tuesday that the incident included an armed standoff involving the Mexican military and suspected drug smugglers. The incident follows a story in the Bulletin on Jan. 15 that said the Mexican military had crossed into the United States more than 200 times since 1996.

Apparent military Humvee helped
In a news conference, Rick Glancey of the Texas Border Sheriff's Coalition, said three Hudspeth County deputies and at least two Texas Department of Public Safety troopers squared off against at least 10 heavily armed men from the Mexican side of the Rio Grande.

U.S. officials who pursued three fleeing SUVs to the Mexican border saw what appeared to be a Mexican military Humvee help one of the SUVs when it got stuck in the river, he said.

“The other two vehicles headed towards the riverbank. One of them crossed back into Mexico, and the third got stuck in the riverbed,” Zapata County Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez said on Tuesday.

An estimated 10 men in camouflage gear in what looked like a Humvee equipped with a .50 caliber machine gun unloaded what was believed to be marijuana from the stuck vehicle, set it on fire, then carried the bundles into Mexico, he said.

A second SUV had a flat tire and was left behind in the United States and its occupant ran across the border, Glancey said.

Gonzalez, also of the Texas Border Sheriffs’ Coalition, said he was skeptical about the Mexican government's claims.

“When you see a Humvee vehicle with a .50 caliber machine gun on it, this leads you to believe this is not a vehicle being used by the drug lords, but in fact is part of the Mexican military,” Gonzalez said. “I think of course the Mexican government knows about this.”

Glancey said he could not confirm whether the armed men seen at the site were Mexican Army, police officers, or drug dealers, and would not detail what markings deputies may have seen on the men's uniforms or the Humvee.

Fearing international incident
Chief Deputy Mike Doyal of the Hudspeth County Sheriff's Department said that Mexican army personnel had several mounted machine guns on the ground more than 200 yards inside the U.S. border, the Daily Bulletin newspaper reported earlier.

"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."

Hudspeth County Sheriff Arvin West, whose officers were involved in a similar incident last year, said he is certain that Mexican authorities know who was involved.

After the newspaper reported on Mexican military crossings earlier this month, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the report was overblown and most of the incursions were just mistakes.

In eastern California, Arizona and New Mexico, the U.S.-Mexico border is largely unmarked. But in Texas, the Rio Grande separates the two countries and even when dry, is a riverbed about 200 feet wide.

In November, Doyal said Border Patrol agents in the border town of Fort Hancock called for help after confronting more than six men dressed in Mexican military uniforms. The men allegedly were trying to bring more than three tons of marijuana across the Rio Grande, Doyal told the newspaper.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.


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