Image: U.S. border agents
David Mcnew  /  Getty Images
U.S. Border Patrol agents work along the New River in Calexico, Calif., in this March file photo. Amid efforts to tighten border security in the Southwest, drug smugglers and human traffickers have become increasingly aggressive, officials say.
By Brock N. Meeks Chief Washington correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 5/27/2005 9:06:18 PM ET 2005-05-28T01:06:18

Newton’s third law of physics says that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and it’s being played out in violent fashion along the nation’s southwest border.

Assaults against U.S. Border Patrol agents along a 260-mile stretch of the Arizona/Mexico border known as the Tucson sector, a desolate expanse of territory that is the nation’s major artery for illegal immigration, are on a record clip. In the first eight months of fiscal year 2005 there have been 163 recorded acts of violence against border agents compared with 118 for all of fiscal year 2004, according to the U.S. Border Patrol. 

Border patrol officials in other sectors contacted by MSNBC.com had no figures readily available; however, all those contacted acknowledged that violence is on the increase.

The increase in violence comes amid a renewed government security crackdown on the border launched just last month. That effort, known officially as the Arizona Border Control Initiative Phase II, “is nothing less than a full court press,” said Richard Bonner, commissioner of the Customs and Border Protection unit, promising the effort would gain control of “what is the weakest part of our border with Mexico.”

A major cause of the violence, say Border Patrol officials and agents, is that crackdown efforts are making people more desperate. Drug smugglers and human traffickers have become increasingly aggressive as their losses mount, border patrol officials said.

The violence “is indicative of the desire by the type of people coming here” to protect their illicit cargo, said Shawn Moran, a border patrol agent and San Diego local union official. “[President] Bush likes to say just good hearted people are trying to come across our borders,” Moran said, “but a number of them are hardened criminals with a criminal past and they are willing to do anything it takes.”

The State Department also is warning U.S. citizens about the violence, alerting the public about “the continuing unsettled public security situation” along the border. The warning says there is “violent criminal activity fueled by a war between criminal organizations struggling for control of the lucrative narcotics trade” and that the “criminals are armed with an impressive array of weapons.”

“Make no mistake, these [criminals] are organized,” said George McCubbin, a border agent and southwest vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union representing border agents. “They will try and create a confrontation in one area as a diversion, knowing we’ll send agents to respond, in hopes that they can sneak through uncovered areas,” McCubbin said.

Range of violence
The violence against border agents runs the gamut from physical assaults, where a suspect actually fights with an agent, to “rockings,” in which agents and their vehicles are pelted with rocks or chunks of cement blocks, to vehicles being used to try and run agents down, to shootings. 

The “rockings” have gotten so violent that border patrol agents now ride in “war wagons," vehicles that are custom fitted with steel screens, said Joe Brigman, a border patrol spokesman in the Yuma, Ariz. sector.

But union officials and agents said that they are often frustrated by internal policies that keep them from taking aggressive action against illegal immigrants.

McCubbin said that because of personnel shortages, the border patrol has shifted from active patrols to a policy of “high visibility” in which agents are basically static or in “watch mode” until an actual incursion is noted and they have to respond.

“We’re pretty much a reactive operation,” McCubbin said, “and I believe that’s why we’re in this position, we’re like sitting ducks in a way.”

Some agents complained that they are rarely allowed to pursue illegal immigrants, regardless of the situation.

“If anyone runs from us, we don’t chase them,” said one California-based border patrol agent who requested anonymity. “We could have information that there is a nuke in the back of a van but we don’t have authority to chase them,” the agent said. “We’ve had radiation pagers go off and we’re still not allowed [by our supervisors] to give chase,” he said. “They are scared to death something will go wrong and there will be a huge liability.”

The border patrol operates under a single pursuit policy, said Andrea Zortman, a border patrol spokeswoman. “Each pursuit is different,” she said. “A case involving a marijuana load is going to be different than pursuing a human trafficker.”

A number of factors are assessed by a local supervisor, including weather, road conditions, and location “and then it falls on the supervisor to determine if [pursuit] is okay,” Zortman said.  “We have to be aware of the safety for everyone, our agents, those we are pursuing and anyone nearby.”

Lou Maheda, a border patrol supervisory agent and public affairs officer in the Tucson sector, says that you can look at the increase in violence in two ways. “It means [the criminals] are getting more desperate,” he said. “We don’t want to see crimes or violent acts against our agents, but by the same token it is some form of intelligence that we are doing our job.”

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