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Mexico-U.S. border safety in doubt

Julie Watson, AP - 6/26/2002

SONOYTA, Sonora - Mexico has been sending more soldiers to the U.S. border to combat drug smuggling, and some are raising alarms on the other side by carrying their operations into U.S. territory.

Even more worrisome, critics say, are recent shootings involving an American tourist, a U.S. Border Patrol vehicle and migrants. They fear the troops are overzealous and so poorly trained that they are a hazard to innocent people in both countries.

Two of the shootings were on Mexico's side of the border, and the one in U.S. territory occurred in a remote area where the border isn't marked well. It is along such stretches that Mexican troops have strayed onto the U.S. side - as American officers also occasionally cross into Mexico.

Since Sept. 11, some U.S. lawmakers have urged President Bush to deploy troops along the borders with both Mexico and Canada to guard against terrorists and to stop the flow of illegal immigrants and drugs.

Now U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, who has complained to President Vicente Fox about the border incursions, suggests U.S. troops are also needed to protect Americans from Mexican forces. In April, an 18-year-old Texan was wounded by a Mexican soldier as he and his father drove across an international bridge over the Rio Grande after visiting the northern border city of Reynosa. Human rights activists said the soldier fired because the car rolled over a cone marking a checkpoint and was being driven erratically.

On May 17, a U.S. Border Patrol officer said Mexican soldiers drove a Humvee across the poorly marked border into the Arizona desert across from Sonoyta and shot at his marked official car. The bullets shattered a window of his Chevrolet Tahoe.

On June 14, a Chevrolet Suburban carrying 23 Latin Americans intending to sneak illegally into the United States was riddled with bullets as it headed across the Baja California desert toward the border. The group - eight of whom were injured, including three who had to be hospitalized - fled into the United States, where they told police they believed the shots came from a Mexican army patrol.

Mexico's Defense Secretariat, which won't say how many soldiers are patrolling the 2,000-mile border, declined to comment on the shootings. The U.S. government hasn't commented on the incidents, although the Border Patrol says it is investigating the shooting involving its officer.

Human rights activists in Mexico say the soldiers aren't trained for police duties and contend they are becoming overzealous and careless because the military is immune from public scrutiny. The military has its own legal system, and traditionally the army answers only to the president.

"The soldiers are not prepared to do the kind of work that they are doing," said Arturo Solis, director of the Center for Border Studies and the Promotion of Human Rights in Reynosa. "They're young kids who are committing abuses and the government is protecting them. They should go back to their barracks. That's their place."

Some of Mexico's enlisted soldiers are 16-year-olds with only an elementary school education. Their training consists largely of "marching around and learning about the history of the military," said Roderic Camp, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., who studies the Mexican military.

"Although they're very obedient to their lieutenants and captains, they could easily make these kinds of errors of judgment," Camp said. "They don't have a lot of hands-on training."

Last month, Tancredo sent a letter to Fox denouncing the military's behavior along the border. Tancredo also questioned whether all the border crossings are accidental: "To the best of your knowledge, are the incursions undertaken to protect the traffic of drugs across the border and into the U.S.?"

Writing back, Mexico's ambassador to the United States, Juan Jose Bremer Martino, called the tone of Tancredo's letter "surprising."

"Beyond the discourteous and inappropriate tone of your correspondence, I must stress that Mexico has not had and does not have a policy of military incursions in any other nation," he wrote. Both Mexican and U.S. officers have inadvertently crossed the border at times and sometimes patrolled the wrong country in areas where the boundary is unclear. Mexican soldiers wander across the border 20 to 25 times a year, the U.S. Border Patrol says. Border Patrol officers also have crossed into Mexico while chasing migrants.

Before taking office in Dec. 2000, Fox had pledged to get Mexico's military out of drug interdiction operations, but during his administration the army has played an increasing role in the drug fight.

Camp said Fox had no alternative because Mexico's police forces are too corrupt. "He didn't have any other professional agency that could do it," Camp said. Camp doesn't think the incidents are likely to affect relations between Mexico and the United States, though.

He noted the army under Fox has won some important battles against trafficking. Although Mexican army officers have often been linked to drug smugglers in the past, soldiers in March captured one of the country's most-wanted drug lords, Benjamin Arellano Felix.