An alleged incursion into the United States by Mexican soldiers guarding a drug shipment is helping stir debate over security on the US-Mexico border.
Border security advocates in the United States are expressing outrage over what they say was an incursion by armed Mexican troops into U.S. territory. But Mexican government officials deny any such event took place and suggest that drug traffickers may have donned army uniforms to carry out a smuggling operation.
The alleged incident occurred in a remote area of west Texas, about 100 kilometers east of El Paso. Deputies from the Hudspeth County sheriff's department pursued three cars that they suspected were being used for drug smuggling. Before they reached the Rio Grande river, which serves as the border there, the deputies seized one vehicle, which contained 560 kilograms of marijuana. One car made it across the border to Mexico, but another vehicle became stuck in the river. Then men dressed in military uniforms appeared on the scene with what the Texas lawmen describe as a military-style Humvee with a mounted machine gun. These uniformed men removed what the lawmen believe was a drug shipment from the stalled vehicle and then set it on fire.
Hudspeth County Sheriff Arvin West, speaking to VOA by phone, says he is certain these were Mexican soldiers. "There is no doubt in my mind it is Mexican military and it has been that way for years," he said.
Officials here in Texas have expressed concern that such incidents could result in a gun battle between U.S. lawmen and Mexican troops. Sheriff West says that is already part of the border reality. "It is not a matter of if it happens, it has already happened. It is a matter of getting somebody killed," he said.
Sheriff West says there have been dozens of incidents involving Mexican military incursions on the border and that in a few cases U.S. Border Patrol agents have been wounded. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says most reports of such incidents have been, as he put it, "overblown." Sheriff West and Border Patrol union officials, however, say these incidents are all too real and that the situation could grow worse if nothing is done.
Sheriff West is not too sure the security fence called for under a recently approved bill in Congress would do much good, but he does think more law enforcement personnel on the border would help. "What would be effective is, one, put more Border Patrol agents down here and two, give us the means to hire more personnel to put down there to assist the Border Patrol as we are doing with Operation Linebacker through the Texas Sheriff coalition at present date," he said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which is under the Department of Homeland Security, is investigating the incident in Hudspeth County and has also asked the Mexican government for a thorough investigation. Texas Governor Rick Perry has also ordered an investigation, saying that it does not matter if the armed men who crossed the border were Mexican soldiers or people dressed as soldiers. He says, either way, what happened is unacceptable.