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Border Patrol Agents Feel at Home on Range 3000; High-Tech Simulator Prepares Them for New Anti-Terrorist Mission

By David McLemore, The Dallas Morning News

HARLINGEN, Texas - Border Patrol Agent Wade Shrum leans forward toward the flickering light, then shouts, "Don''t move!" He repeats the order as a man in a white T-shirt crawls out from the back seat of the car.

The man hesitates, then pulls a handgun from the small of his back. "Don''t do it. Don''t," Agent Shrum yells, his voice rising. He fires three shots. The man falls.

Then the lights come up.

"Oh, it''s realistic. It doesn''t feel like training at all," Agent Shrum said. "You can feel the sweat break out on your forehead when you see him reach for that gun."

Agent Shrum, assigned to the Border Patrol station at Harlingen, has just experienced the Range 3000. Something like a life-size PlayStation game, it is an interactive reality trainer that fits in a 30-foot trailer. It provides weapons training in highly realistic simulations to all 1,500 agents in the McAllen sector.

And, Border Patrol officials say, it also provides the agency another weapon in its role in homeland security.

"Our newest job is to detect and stop terrorists and terrorist weapons from crossing U.S. borders," said Agent Rey Diaz, McAllen sector spokesman. "The digital training simulator is simply the latest in a line of new technology and increased manpower that gives us the edge to perform all our missions."

Illegal immigration and drug smuggling have long been primary targets of Border Patrol agents.

High-intensity efforts such as Operation Rio Grande - with agents deployed several hundred yards apart along populated stretches of the river - have slowed the flow of illegal immigrants through the McAllen sector, once one of the busiest illegal entry points in the Southwest.

Last year, agents detained 77,749 people, about 25 percent fewer than two years earlier. In 1997, apprehensions totaled more than 240,000 in the sector, which covers 17 South Texas counties along the Rio Grande from Brownsville to Falcon Lake.

Drug smuggling, however, remains a major concern. Each year, agents in the sector seize more than 150 tons of marijuana and 3.5 tons of cocaine.

In September, the Border Patrol assumed new duties in the war on terrorism. It became part of the Customs and Border Enforcement division of the Homeland Security Department in the wave of agency consolidation that followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

That places the agency as the nation''s first line of defense, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert C. Bonner said.

"CBP is addressing its greatest priority mission, keeping terrorists and terrorist weapons out of our country," he said.

The new mission has brought in a swarm of new agents. In 1997, there were 497 agents in the McAllen sector. Now, there are more than 1,500.

Agents are armed with 40-caliber handguns, shotguns, automatic rifles, collapsible riot batons and pepper spray. Each agent also carries a radioactive isotope reader that can detect efforts to smuggle nuclear devices, Agent Diaz said.

In addition to the array of electronic sensors that dot the trails and roads leading from the river, the sector also has cameras perched on towers that can watch for river crossings day or night from three miles away.

So where does a $170,000 digital trainer such as the Range 3000 fit in with this new Border Patrol?

"This trainer puts them in the kinds of stressful situations they routinely encounter on the job. They learn when to use their weapons and how to use them before they actually have to," said Eduardo Payan, field operations supervisor. "This trainer offers our agents a lot more confidence in what they do. At a range, you''re just shooting paper targets. In the trailer, you''re facing ''real people'' in any number of possible scenarios."

Agents get training in shoot/don''t shoot scenarios, and each can be tailored to the specific areas they may be covering, including checkpoints, river patrols, railcars and ranch patrols.

Unlike other law enforcement agencies, state or federal, Border Patrol agents never know what kind of call they might be responding to, Agent Payan said.

"Police officers know they''re responding to a traffic accident or a domestic dispute," he said. "All we know is that someone is coming through the brush. We don''t know if it''s illegals, people smugglers or armed drug dealers."

It''s training that can quickly become all too real.

Last month, an agent from the Harlingen station approached a suspicious vehicle, an old Suburban, as it drove near the river. A chase ensued when the Suburban driver made a run for it. On one of the trails near the river, the Suburban driver rammed the agent''s car, then bailed out to run into the water. With the agent in pursuit, gunmen on the Mexican side fired several shots. Agents found 600 pounds of marijuana in the Suburban.

"We want our agents to feel secure that when they have to take action, they''ve done the right thing," Agent Diaz said. "But we also want them to be able to go home to their families at the end of a tour."

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