Jon E. Dougherty, Voices, Mar. 17
On September 13, 2002, FBI agents Sergio Barrio, 39, and Samantha Mikeska, 38, were aboard a freight train traversing the rolling hills of Mount Cristo Rey near the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas. They were riding the rail for much the same reason agents from Wells Fargo, Pinkerton’s, and other frontier-era security companies in the Old West rode rails — to thwart a rash of train robberies that had been taking place on that line for months.
According to federal officials, robbers in these remote areas of the U.S.-Mexico border operate by waiting for American freight trains to slow, perhaps from a steep incline, in a desolate area of track — areas which are still inside the United States but just yards from Mexico and escape. As the slow-moving cars creep around corners and bends in the track, robbers jump aboard unseen, then open the rail cars and begin to toss out their contents. Sometimes, says the FBI, the robbers would actually unhitch entire rail cars — usually those located at the end of long, winding trains — so they can take their time removing the stolen goods later.
But on this particular day, Agents Barrio and Mikeska, who were accompanied by a third agent located in another part of the train, were hiding in one car when they noticed a suspected train robber on the roof. The two agents alerted the third agent, who then sneaked into position and managed to pull the suspect from the roof. But, according to reports, by the time he had restrained the rooftop suspect, he noticed that Barrio and Mikeska were off the train and on the ground, staggering back onto U.S. soil with other suspects in pursuit.
Agents Barrio and Mikeska, the third agent soon discovered, had been beaten nearly to death by several other suspected train robbers — suspects who had boarded the train undetected by the American agents. Barrio and Mikeska were kicked and beaten and struck with large rocks, FBI officials said, noting that Barrio had suffered a severe injury over his right eye and had to undergo surgery to relieve pressure on his brain. Mikeska, meanwhile, also suffered from brain swelling and had to have surgery. Both would live, but neither would be the same.
The suspects? They were Mexican nationals, and they had been routinely crossing into the U.S. just to rob the slow-moving trains. What had been a relatively victimless crime — border hopping — had now turned violent, but it was an incident border policy experts and others concerned about reforming immigration issues had seen coming.
By June 1997, violence along the 2,200-mile U.S.-Mexico border, which had been escalating for years, had become so intolerable that U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) said from the House floor portions of the border were more dangerous than Bosnia. He also said that American law enforcement officials and U.S. soldiers had been fired upon by Mexico-based assailants at least 10 times in the previous 10 weeks. “There have been more firefights on the border in recent weeks than there have been in Bosnia,” Hunter said before a congressional vote authorizing President Bill Clinton to dispatch up to 10,000 troops to the border to help curb some of the violence, which stemmed mostly from illegal immigration and drug trafficking.
An outbreak of border fracases has led other expert observers to compare the border to a war zone.
On April 18, 1997, a pair of U.S. Customs Service inspectors were wounded in a gun battle at the Calexico border station. Agents managed to kill the Mexican attacker, but this outbreak of violence was followed later in the day by a bomb threat to a tunnel linking Calexico and Mexicali. Meanwhile, an illegal alien smuggler attempted to run down a Border Patrol officer with 25 illegal immigrants stuffed into his van; the incident resulted in a televised chase along California freeways that ended in suburban West Covina.
Then, on May 11, Border Patrol agents and sheriff’s deputies in San Diego were fired upon after a deputy attempted to stop a vehicle for speeding. That incident was followed by another on May 17, when a Border Patrol officer was wounded by a sniper firing an AK-47 assault rifle near the San Ysidro border-crossing station. The agent was just sitting in his Ford Bronco when he was attacked; he was struck in the face and endured a lengthy medical recovery.
On May 20, a four-man Marine unit. providing surveillance assistance to the Border Patrol, was reportedly fired upon by a Mexican-American boy on the U.S. side of the border near Big Bend National Park in Texas. The Marines returned fire, killing the assailant and causing a national uproar because the attacker turned out to be an 18-year-old U.S. citizen who was reportedly tending his family’s goats. In January of the same year, a Green Beret soldier shot and wounded another assailant who the military said had first fired upon U.S. soldiers.
On May 23, a pair of Border Patrol agents working near Border Field State Park in southern California came under sniper fire again. The agents defended themselves, firing some 50 to 60 shots back into Mexico, from where the sniper fire originated. Another attack was reported the next day, and at least two other gun battles between Border Patrol agents in Naco, Arizona, and assailants on the Mexican side of the border took place that same month.
Then, on June 1, Border Patrol agents were again fired upon west of the San Ysidro, California, Port of Entry. Shots were also fired at Border Patrol officers — again from Mexico — in separate incidents June 17 and 18 in the same vicinity. And a Border Patrol agent was killed June 14 when he fell down a ravine while pursuing suspects.
“These shootings coming from south of the border aimed north are something that we haven’t experienced until just about a month or so ago,” explained Border Patrol spokesman Jim Pilkington. Also unprecedented was the type of weapon being used: AK-47 rifles equipped with special telescopes and laser range-finders normally restricted to the Mexican army.
The problems — and the danger to American citizens and law enforcement personnel — have only worsened. By March 2000, Border Patrol and Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) agents began to voice what many believed were legitimate concerns about “armed incursions” into the United States from Mexico-based assailants; they reported that heavily armed Mexican army units and federal police, called federales, had infiltrated U.S. territory and fired upon them, in some cases because — federal agents would later discover — Mexican drug lords had put prices on the heads of American law enforcement agents strung out along the border.
The National Border Patrol Council, a nationwide union that represents all of the roughly 9,000 non-supervisory Border Patrol employees, said that on March 14, 2000, shortly after 10 p.m. local time, two Mexican army Humvees carrying about 16 armed soldiers drove across the international boundary and into the United States near Santa Teresa, New Mexico. There the vehicles pursued a Border Patrol vehicle, which was “outfitted with decals and emergency lights (that were activated for much of the pursuit) over a mile into the United States,” according to a statement issued by the council.
The lead Mexican army vehicle, the council said, contained nine soldiers “armed with seven automatic assault rifles, one submachine gun, and two .45 caliber pistols,” and was eventually apprehended by other Border Patrol units. The second Humvee, however, “pursued a Border Patrol agent on horseback and fired a shot at him. The soldiers then disembarked their vehicle, fired upon one more Border Patrol agent and chased another agent before fleeing [back] to Mexico in their vehicle.”
At the time the council said the incident was the most serious of its kind, adding “it is but one of hundreds of incursions that have been reported over the past several years.”
Why would Mexican army units intentionally pursue Border Patrol agents, U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency officers, Customs officials and INS agents? Some federal border and law enforcement agents believe it was because of bounties up to $200,000 placed on their heads by a few of Mexico’s rich and powerful drug cartels. Border Patrol officials in March 2000 confirmed that at least one drug gang — the Juarez cartel, until recently one of Mexico’s largest — had implemented a bounty on U.S. lawmen.
“A good trafficking organization has a larger budget than we do,” said DEA agent Bernie Minarik, one of 600 U.S. agents working the southwestern border. “They know who we are,” he said, adding that more drug busts along the border usually means more attention from drug lords. The attention can be deadly, he noted. The drug lords “consider it a cost of doing business,” but, of course, he added, every business wants to cut its costs.
In June 2000, Fox News reported that the violent assaults against federal agents along the southwest border increased from 156 in 1994 to 500 by 1999. By October 24, 2000, another border shooting occurred — the second such shooting incident that year. Mexican army soldiers reportedly crossed into the United States and fired on U.S. Border Patrol agents, according to L. Keith Weeks, vice president of the National Border Patrol Union Local 1613 in San Diego,California, which is separate from the national council. Weeks said two border patrolmen who had just disembarked from a “clearly marked Border Patrol helicopter” immediately came under fire from a 10-man unit of what appeared to be soldiers with the Mexican army. Weeks said the incident occurred in Copper Canyon, about eight miles east of the Otay Mesa Port of Entry.
“It happened,” he said. “These agents departed their helicopter and were immediately fired upon.” He said about eight shots were fired, and described the assailants as a Mexican military unit dressed in military-style uniforms with tactical vests and carrying “high-powered military rifles with bayonets.”