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January 25, 2006
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Mexico: Uniformed men in border incident were drug traffickers, not soldiers

Associated Press Writer

MEXICO CITY-Mexico insisted Wednesday that the men in military-style uniforms who crossed the Rio Grande River and confronted Texas law officers with guns drawn earlier this week were drug smugglers, not soldiers.

Mexican presidential spokesman Ruben Aguilar said the FBI supported that view.

A U.S. law enforcement official confirmed Aguilar's account, saying the FBI and other agencies found no evidence that the men in uniform were Mexican soldiers. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the matter is politically sensitive in both countries.

"These were not Mexican army soldiers, as the U.S. government itself acknowledges," Aguilar said at a news conference. "It is known that these are drug traffickers using military uniforms and they were not even regulation military uniforms."

Aguilar said both countries were investigating the incident.

The incident has raised tensions between the United States and Mexico, which were already bickering over security problems along their 2,000-mile-long border. The United States has proposed extending a wall along the border, something Mexico bitterly opposes.

Texas law enforcement officials confronted armed traffickers near the Rio Grande on Monday as what looked like a Mexican military patrol assisted the marijuana smugglers as they escaped back into Mexico.

No shots were fired during Monday's confrontation with at least 10 heavily armed men, U.S. authorities said Tuesday. The traffickers escaped back into Mexico with much of the marijuana, though they abandoned more than a half-ton of marijuana as they fled and set fire to one of their vehicles.

The confrontation 50 miles east of El Paso started when state police tried to stop three sport utility vehicles on Interstate 10. The vehicles made a quick U-turn and headed south toward the border, a few miles away.

When the SUVs reached the Rio Grande, which marks the border, police saw the occupants of a green, Mexican Army-style Humvee waiting for the convoy, said Rick Glancey of the Texas Border Sheriffs' Coalition.

One SUV got stuck in the river, and men in the Humvee tried to tow the stuck vehicle out of the river. When that failed, a group of men in civilian clothes began unloading from the SUV what appeared to be bundles of marijuana. They then torched the SUV, Glancey said.

A Mexican government official said the country has long required its soldiers to avoid an area one mile from the U.S. border _ an area known as the "alert zone" _ unless they are authorized.

Troop movements in the alert zone are controlled so they do not happen without good reason, the official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. He said he did not know exactly when the policy had been implemented, but it was before the Monday incident.

The U.S. Embassy and Mexico's army press office have not commented on the incident.

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