U.S., MEXICO DISPUTE TEXAS OFFICERS' VERSION OF DRUG BUST
Sheriff's Agency Says Neighboring Country's Military Aided Smugglers
SIERRA BLANCA, Texas - It began as a simple drug bust near this speck of a West Texas border town, but it soon mushroomed into an international incident that has pitted local law enforcement officers against the U.S. and Mexican governments and others.
The local officers say the incident involved heavily armed members of the Mexican military, adding yet more firepower to the violent and dangerous drug cartels trying to protect smuggling routes into the U.S. U.S. and Mexican government officials say that the Mexican military was not involved and that the local officers exaggerated their account, playing up public fears in a bid to win support for increased funding for border security. Texas sheriffs are lobbying for
$34 million of $100 million in federal money earmarked for border security, money that would pay for additional sheriff deputies to act as a second line of defense behind Border Patrol agents. "The sheriffs have found a way to get attention and hopefully increased resources for their poor counties, where law enforcement jobs represent the bread and butter of their economy," said Dennis Bixler-Marquez, a political science professor at the University of Texas at El Paso.
"But at what expense and at whose expense?"
Hudspeth County Sheriff Arvin West takes issue with such talk. He cites increasing violence along the border, including 778 attacks against Border Patrol agents in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, compared with 374 in the previous year.
"I have no political agenda, or a personal agenda, nor is this my 15 minutes of fame," he said. "This is plain and simple a matter about security, about protecting our county and our country."
The dispute began Jan. 23, when Deputy Sheriff Esequiel Legarreta and his partner, Deputy Joe Tammen, received an informant's tip of a planned drug smuggling operation across the Rio Grande. The men notified state troopers and Border Patrol agents.
Troopers gave chase to three SUVs, which turned toward the border and tried to flee across the Rio Grande. Local authorities said a military-style Humvee and several men wearing uniforms came to the aid of the SUVs, but one of the vehicles became stuck in the mud. Another had a flat tire and was abandoned - with its load of 1,447 pounds of marijuana. The smugglers escaped. Deputies had been reporting similar alleged military incursions for months, but their reports were often met with skepticism by Washington bureaucrats, who say that while incursions are common, most of the time they're accidental as soldiers get lost along a border that stretches across wilderness and desert.
This time, a frustrated Deputy Tammen carried a camera and shot pictures of some uniformed men unloading drugs from the SUV that was stuck in the mud. "I'm tired of people saying I'm full of crap," said Deputy Tammen, a military veteran of Iraq, Macedonia and Kosovo. "I wanted to document it for our government."
Deputy Tammen insisted that the vehicle that came to the aid of the SUV was a military Humvee. "These people were military," he said. "I counted at least 12 of them."
Tactics questioned U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, disagrees.
Mr. Reyes, a 26-year law enforcement veteran and former Border Patrol chief, said he supports increased funding for local law enforcement on the border, including the sheriffs. But he questions their tactics.
"To have the sheriff and his deputies spin this is as an incursion and to have them say they were pinned down, that's just pure embellishment," Mr. Reyes said. "Sheriff West was on all these neocon TV shows and radio talking about uniformed Mexican military, and he sensationalized the heck out of this whole thing. What happened to facts?"
The incident remains under investigation by both governments, although a senior U.S. official said: "The Mexican military was not involved, that much we can say. Why does the sheriff insist on wanting to stir up problems, I don't know, but I for one am very curious and skeptical about his motives." The Mexican government immediately denied that its military was involved in the incident and later identified some of the men caught on photographs as members of drug cartels.
Geronimo Gutierrez, undersecretary for North America in the Foreign Ministry, forcefully repeated the denial Friday during an interview with editors of The Dallas Morning News. "The Mexican military was not involved," he said, adding that all military personnel in the area had been accounted for. Disputed TV report What happened next is also in dispute.
After the Jan. 23 incident, Mr. Reyes requested that the Mexican government look into the incident. On Jan. 30, Mexican authorities notified U.S. authorities that their soldiers and federal police would be at the scene of the incident the next day.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration notified other U.S. agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, and the Hudspeth County Sheriff's Office, according to four government sources. Sheriff West disputes that his office was notified.
Meanwhile, a crew from the local Fox television station, KFOX, accompanied one of Sheriff West's deputies to get footage of the scene of the standoff. As the crew rolled tape, two Mexican soldiers walked nonchalantly near the Rio Grande. The TV crew shot the video and quickly left. Their taped report, which aired repeatedly, referred to the incident as "an incursion," although there was no video showing that the soldiers ever crossed the border. News director Dave Bennallack explained that the film crew, fearing possible violence, left immediately, but saw the soldier cross. "I am confident we were not used by the sheriff or his deputies," Mr. Bennallack said.
Minutes after the report appeared on KFOX on Jan. 31, the Texas Border Sheriffs Coalition sent a mass mailing to the media, politicians and other law enforcement agencies, informing them that "Hudspeth County has reported another incursion."
"How far are we supposed to retreat?" the mailing said. "We know we are supposed to turn the other cheek, but being slapped twice in 8 days?" Mr. Reyes, the El Paso legislator, suggested that Sheriff West's office had manipulated the situation.
"The strange thing about that report is that KFOX never says that these soldiers were there at my request and that the proper U.S.
authorities had been notified beforehand by Mexico," Mr. Reyes said.
"I don't agree with bashing Mexico just to get more funding. ... It's pretty chilling to see guys who are supposed to be the law and enforcement of our community with no qualms about stretching the facts . under the mantra of protecting our nation and national security."
'Blatant lies' Sheriff West called Mr. Reyes' comments "outrageous, ludicrous" and said statements that U.S. authorities notified him of the Mexican soldiers' visit were "blatant lies."
"I hear Reyes' doubts, and it only makes me question his loyalty to the United States of America," Sheriff West said. "Why is he so cozy in bed with Mexico?" This month, members of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Investigations flew into El Paso and held a hearing on border violence. When Mr. Reyes, a member of the committee, challenged the local officers' version of the border incident, one of the sheriffs - Leo Samaniego of El Paso - walked out in protest.
"I think Reyes has forgotten what the border is like," said Deputy Legarreta, who was also at the hearing. "It's one thing to question a person's integrity, but when you question the integrity of a law enforcement officer, you hurt him where it really hurts."
Deputy Legarreta and fellow deputies say they've since received death threats. On Feb. 3, unknown men drove to the house of a deputy and told his wife in English, "Tell your husband to stay away from the river." Deputy Legarreta, who is married with four children, said: "I take the threat very seriously because we confiscated some 5,000 to 6,000 pounds of dope in the last month, and these narcos are mad.
We're hurting their business, and they can't be that happy about it."
Even so, as of Feb. 13, the threat had not been reported to the FBI or any other federal agency. Sheriff West explained: "What can the FBI do about it? I'd rather tell the media because at least the media will write about it."