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Officers need assistance at the border: Comments from Law Officer Editor

By Dale Stockton
Editor, Law Officer magazine

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There is no higher priority call than an officer in need of help. While it may be called something different depending on the region of the country, we all know the meaning of an officer needs help call. One of our own is in danger and needs help. It doesn't matter what we're doing or which agency we work for, we respond. We roll because we know that we depend on each other and because we're the last line of defense for society. If we lose, then all of society loses.

As we are going to press, there is a situation occurring along the Texas-Mexico border that is truly one where officers need help. They are in constant danger and facing almost insurmountable challenges. If we let these brave officers lose, our entire country will suffer the consequences. This was made abundantly clear on January 23, 2006 in an area along the border known as Neely's crossing.

Marijuana fills the captured Cadillac Escalade

It was the middle of the day on a Monday and Hudspeth County (TX) deputies had received information regarding a large shipment of drugs. When they spotted three shiny new SUVs filled with large bundles and traveling together, the officers gave chase and were assisted by state troopers. During the 18 mile pursuit, the SUV caravan turned south towards the Rio Grande, the dividing line between the US and Mexico. One vehicle escaped (into Mexico) by driving across the river and one was captured after it blew a tire. The third got stuck in the river and at first, it looked like law enforcement would capture two out of three of the drug transport vehicles.

However, heavily armed subjects, many of whom were dressed in military uniforms, quickly flanked the officers. According to Hudspeth County Sheriff Arvin West, these militarily dressed subjects were approximately 200 yards into American territory. Using a military-like Humvee with a mounted machine gun, the subjects tried to free the stranded SUV. When that failed, the drugs were off loaded and the vehicle set afire. Although no shots were fired, Sheriff West said the cops were seriously outgunned and could do nothing but stand by and watch.

Who were these subjects? At first, a Mexican spokesperson said they were US soldiers dressed in Mexican uniforms to make Mexico look bad. Later, it was claimed they must be drug runners disguised as military. Our federal government has been reluctant to take a definitive position and Michael Chertoff, the Secretary of Homeland Security has downplayed this and other incidents. Sheriff West, who has lived in the area all of his life, says he knows who is responsible. "No doubt in my mind they were Mexcian military," he said. "We've had other contacts with them." As for Secretary Chertoff's comments? The sheriff did not mince words: "Our government and everyone else wants to piss ant around about this. He [Chertoff] has no clue as to what is going on down here."

This is not the first incident of this type. About two months prior, a stop was attempted on a dump truck loaded with an estimated 10,000 pounds of marijuana. The truck headed south towards the river and subsequently became stuck. The driver fled into Mexico. After approximately 1,800 pounds of marijuana were recovered, heavily armed subjects dressed in Mexican military BDUs showed up and took over the scene, using a large front loading tractor to pull the dump truck out of the river and over to the Mexican side. According to TJ Bonner, a 27-year veteran of the US Border Patrol and the President of the National Border Patrol Council, the officers (which included USBP) could only observe as the vehicle and its cargo of contraband were taken away.

The border has been a challenge for a long time and incidents like the two listed above have happened before according to many sources with whom I spoke. Unfortunately, those on the front line have not received the support that they so urgently need. I asked Hudspeth County Sheriff Arvin West to describe, using a scale of one to ten, how dangerous the job was that his deputies face every day. "It's a twelve," he said without hesitation. "We need some help down here."

His sentiments are echoed by all sixteen of the sheriffs who are responsible for the counties lying along the 1200 plus miles of the Texas Mexico border. Their situation has become so desperate they formed the Texas Border Sheriff's Coalition. "Every one of the sheriffs is concerned about the nation's security," Rick Glancey, the coalition's executive director told me. "They don't want to be questioned after another major incident like 9-11 as to why they let the problem come through their county." Glancey said the sheriffs developed a plan and appealed to the Texas governor for help. "If we thought it was controllable, we wouldn't have said anything," Glancey said.

Although primarily a federal responsibility, Texas Governor Perry understood the gravity of the situation and diverted six million dollars to the border counties. The result was Operation Linebacker, a plan to support local law enforcement by providing support for overtime and personnel. It's putting feet on the ground but officers are getting tired, according to Sheriff West. "I've got twelve deputies to cover 5,000 square miles. I'm pushing my guys beyond the limits," he said. "Even my days consist of twelve to eighteen hours."

Farther south along the border, Lt. Juan Gonzalez, Pharr (TX) Police Department says his officers are seeing an increase in trafficking by gangs and a very serious MS-13 presence. "Many of them have better firearms and technology than we do," he said. "The officers have to be on high alert every day. There are so many things - the drugs, the gangs, the cartels. We try to adjust our tactics to the challenge but it's very dangerous."

At this point, you might be thinking that this problem is one that primarily affects officers along the border and it probably isn't really impacting the area where you work. Although it's most visible at the border, this issue affects all of us. "We all bleed the same color blood," said Lt. Pharr. "We all want our kids and our communities to be safe. This gang [MS-13] and these drugs are going throughout the country. What the officer in Ohio [or elsewhere] should worry about is these guys are headed their way. Sooner or later, the drugs and gangs we see going through here end up in communities throughout this country. MS-13 is very effective at recruiting and there is a lot of money involved," Lt. Pharr said.

If a dump truck can carry several tons of marijuana across the border, it is not difficult to envision the security risk to our nation. We must change this situation and we must demand action from our representatives. Just a few days after the Neely's Crossing incident, President Bush gave his State of the Union address. At one point, he said, "Our nation needs orderly and secure borders. To meet this goal, we must have stronger immigration enforcement and border protection." Later, he added, "These men and women are dedicating their lives, protecting us all, and they deserve our support and our thanks."

I support our President and I truly hope he meant exactly what he said. Let's help our fellow officers who are walking the point for us along the border. Let your congressional representatives know that officers need help. Things are out of control and we all have an obligation to provide assistance. Short of mounting up a posse, holding congressional feet to the fire is the best thing we can do. Don't assume someone else will go - let's all respond on this one.

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