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Texas, Mexican Authorities Tussle over Drug Traffic

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Mexican officials are investigating an incident earlier this week along the border. A rural Texas sheriff accuses the Mexican army of protecting a drug smuggling operation. Mexico denies its military was involved.

NPR's John Burnett reports.

JOHN BURNETT reporting:

Hudspeth County is an empty stretch of the Chihuahuan Desert that hugs the Rio Grande in far west Texas. Without many towns or people or police, it's a drug smuggler's paradise. Monday afternoon, deputies from the Hudspeth County sheriff's office gave chase to three suspicious Cadillac Escalades speeding down Interstate 10. One of the vehicles, which turned up stolen from El Paso, blew a tire. It was carrying nearly 1500 pounds of marijuana. The other two vehicles high-tailed it to a shallow crossing on the Rio Grande popular with drug smugglers, about 50 miles east of El Paso. One made it across into Mexico, the other one got stuck in the river.

Up to this point, it was a routine skirmish in the drug war along the untamed U.S./Mexico border. But then, according to Hudspeth County sheriff, Arvin West, a Humvee showed up on the Mexican side, and men in army uniforms climbed out carrying assault weapons.

Sheriff ARVIN WEST (Hudspeth County, Texas): At that time, the military-style personnel started flanking both sides of the vehicle that was stuck in the mud. Civilians then approached the vehicle and started to unload, civilians from Mexico started to unload the narcotics, the whole time the military-style personnel were keeping my officers at bay.

BURNETT: West debriefed a dozen of his deputies who were on the scene, and he looked at photos they took of the standoff. He says as many as 20 Mexicans in olive drab uniforms, wearing caps with military insignias, were protecting the operation. He says when the luxury SUV was unloaded, the Humvee failed to pull it out of the mud, and the smugglers torched it. Who were these uniformed men?

Sheriff WEST: My standard answer, if it rattles like a snake, if it looks like a snake, and if it strikes like a snake, it's probably a snake. And after watching, looking at some of the photos on it, there's no doubt that there's probably going to be (unintelligible) Mexican military.

BURNETT: A remarkably similar incident occurred in the same spot last November. Hudspeth County deputies chased a dump truck full of marijuana into the river and it got stuck. They reported that Mexicans in army uniforms, with assault rifles, held off the U.S. lawmen, while a bulldozer pulled the truck onto the Mexican side. Thankfully, in both incidents no shots were fired. But Sheriff West says he's had it.

Sheriff WEST: It's an incident that's happened several times, and I'm here to tell you, with or without the federal government's assistance, we're going to put a stop to it.

BURNETT: Border incidents like this are not all that uncommon. Colorado Republican, Tom Tancredo, a border hardliner, has been circulating an internal document from the Department of Homeland Security that lists 216 incursions by the Mexican military into U.S. territory in the past ten years. Last week, Homeland Security Secretary, Michael Chertoff said reports of such crossings were overblown, and many of them were just mistakes. But the Agency hardened its response after Monday's confrontation. A border patrol spokesman told NPR the United States has asked Mexico for a thorough investigation and an immediate response. T.J. Bonner, President of the National Border Patrol Council, the Agent's Trade Union, was more outspoken.

Mr. T.J. BONNER (President, National Border Patrol Council): If your neighbor is going to treat you like that, having their military or rogue offshoots of their military, operating on the border guarding the cartels, it's completely unacceptable.

BURNETT: Tancredo pounced on Monday's Rio Grande standoff, and called on the U.S. government to send its own military troops to protect the border. A spokesman with the Mexican Embassy in Washington says his government strongly denies any involvement by the Mexican military with drug smuggling. He suggests that drug traffickers are dressing as soldiers and using military vehicles. But, he added, the Mexican Defense Ministry has initiated an investigation to see if soldiers from the nearby Juarez Military Garrison were involved.

John Burnett, NPR News, Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Burnett
As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.