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Mexican Officials Reject Criticism by US Ambassador

An incident on the U.S. border with Mexico Monday, in which Mexican troops allegedly entered U.S. territory in the state of Texas to protect an illicit drug shipment, has created friction between the two nations. Drug and immigrant smuggling operations have become a threat not only to bilateral relations, but to the safety and security of people on both sides of the border.

The alleged incursion by Mexican troops on Monday in Hudspeth County, Texas has set off a flurry of complaints, counter complaints and accusations that reveal a basic gap in the way some issues are perceived by officials on this side of the border and the way they are perceived in Mexico.

Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez has rejected criticism from U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza who, in a diplomatic note sent Wednesday, demanded a complete investigation of the incident. Mr. Derbez denied that the armed men dressed in Mexican army uniforms at the border crossing Monday were Mexican soldiers and suggests they could have been U.S. soldiers dressed up to look like Mexican soldiers.

He cites a case from May of last year in which 16 U.S. soldiers were convicted of involvement in a drug smuggling operation as proof that the U.S. military is not above such activity. But he offers no evidence that U.S. soldiers ever posed as Mexican soldiers and crossed over the border with a drug shipment, as happened on Monday.

U.S. law enforcement officials say that while there are certainly cases of drug-related corruption in this country, the problem is much larger in Mexico. One man who has observed the situation for many years is Arvin West, the sheriff of Hudspeth County, whose deputies were held at bay Monday by the uniformed men who came over the border from Mexico. He says Mexican military units on the border assist drug traffickers on a regular basis.

"They are military personnel drawing a pay check from the Mexican government, as well as from the narcotics traffickers," he said. "They are like the border crossing [guards] there, anything that comes by them, they get paid for and anything that comes back the other way they get paid for."

Sheriff West says this activity draws on the Mexican tradition of the mordida, Spanish slang for bribery, which is usually done on a small scale by citizens trying to avoid a fine for a traffic violation. But law enforcement officials and crime experts on both sides of the border say the mordida practice has turned into something much larger and far more sinister, as a result of the enormous amount of money generated by narcotics trafficking.

The other matter of concern for law enforcement personnel on the border is the frequency of the incursions by Mexican soldiers and police units. U.S. Congressman Tom Tancredo, a Republican from the state of Colorado, says there have been over 200 such incidents in the past 10 years. U.S. Senator John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, says the Immigration and Border Security Committee he chairs will soon hold a hearing on the alleged incursions.

Ambassador Garza's call for an investigation included some strong language critical of Mexico for its rhetoric opposing efforts by the United States to protect its borders. But U.S. officials, for the most part, have refrained from criticizing Mexico.

Mexican President Vicente Fox is also trying to defuse the tension.

He says the relations between his country and the United States go well beyond any particular incidents that may occur day-to-day on the border. He adds that bilateral relations remain strong and cites the continuing cooperation between the two nations on trade and other issues.

That view is shared by many people in the United States who see benefits from maintaining good relations with their southern neighbors, even if there are occasional irritants. When a group of private citizens tried to form a border watch to help stop the entry of illegal immigrants and drug shipments near Brownsville, Texas recently, it was rejected by Cameron County's elected officials. They said the continued growth and prosperity of the border town is dependent on "the goodwill of our brothers in Mexico."