Violence Surges Along U.S.-Mexico Border

John Burnett reports one the recent surge of violence along the U.S.-Mexico border. In the past weeks, gunmen have fired on U.S. Border Patrol agents, Mexican drug traffickers have attacked Texas lawmen, and last week, gunmen stormed the offices of a newspaper in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT,host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott. The U.S. Mexico border seems to be growing more dangerous every day. Recent incidents include shootings and stoning of border patrol agents. An armed stand off between Texas lawman and Mexican drug traffickers dressed as soldiers and most recently an attack on a newspaper in Nuevo Laredo. NPR's John Burnett reports that U.S. authorities federal and local see this as an alarming trend.

JOHN BURNETT, reporting:

Last week Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff acknowledged that violence and mayhem along the southwest border is escalating. All the publicies are poor immigrants coming in search of work.

Mr. MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Secretary of Homeland Security): Behind this are some very sophisticated brutal criminal organizations who traffic in humans and who traffic in drugs. These are the same kind of criminal organizations that we've been dealing with in this country for 10 to 20 years. I mean one organization fails, another one takes over. The more pressure we put on them the more violent they're going to be.

BURNETT: Since October assaults on the U.S. border patrol have increased more than 100 percent. From flaming rocks thrown at agents in the San Diego sector to snipers firing at agents on land and in boats along the Rio Grande. So far no agents have been seriously injured. But local law enforcement authorities report the smuggling cartels are getting more brazen. On January 23rd men in military uniforms driving a military Humvee pointed assault rifles at Texas peace officers to protect a SUV loaded with marijuana escaping back across the river into Mexico.

A week later a carload of Mexican men came to the home of one of the Texas deputies who witnessed the standoff and threatened his wife, saying her husband should stay off the river. The Hudsbath County Sheriff's Office has now posted guards at the deputy's home and at the school his children attend. Concerned over growing lawlessness along the Rio Grande, Texas's 16 border sheriffs have formed a coalition to call for more federal help.

Last week they were in Washington pleading for manpower and equipment. The administration is adding fifteen hundred border patrol agents next year and proposing a hundred million dollars for border security technology. What's more border patrol chief David Aguilar is getting unprecedented help from its neighbors to the south.

Mr. DAVID AGUILAR (Border Patrol Chief): A very, very good thing that is occurring as we speak is that the government of Mexico is working with us in order to reduce and mitigate the violence that is occurring.

BURNETT: None of that reassures El Paso County Sheriff Leo Samaniego, the 72 year old west Texas native said he's worked in law enforcement on the border for 50 years and he's never seen it so bad.

Sheriff LEO SAMANIEGO (Sheriff, El Paso County): The power I guess, the strength of the cartel has increased to a point where I believe they are in control of the Mexican border and not the Mexican government.

BURNETT: Regarding the November 23rd standoff, the Mexican government asserts the gunman were drug traffickers dressed like soldiers. The U.S. State Department and the chief of the border patrol accept that conclusion but the Texas officers who had assault rifles pointed at them remained convinced the gunmen belonged to the Mexican army. Unsatisfied by the explanation by Washington and Mexico City, Texas governor Rick Perry has assigned the Texas Rangers to investigate the incident and last week Perry announced he had dispatched state troopers to beef up security in border counties and he asked the Texas Army National Guard to support them.

Governor RICK PERRY (Republican, Texas): I'm taking these actions to make Texas safer and more secure. Using intelligence, available assets and a new command and control structure. We're going to make our border more secure.

BURNETT: More evidence of the impunity of the border drug mafias, last week two hooded gunmen stormed El Manana Newspaper in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico spraying the office with bullets and lobbing a grenade inside. A forty-year-old reporter is in stable condition from wounds that may paralyze him. Editors believe that Tuesday's attack could be retribution by narco hit men for a conference the newspaper hosted last month in which journalists from around the Americas converged to discuss how to safely cover drug trafficking. On Wednesday, Mexican President Vicente Fox named a special prosecutor to look into the increasing crimes against journalists in his country. The U.S. consulate in Nuevo Laredo Michael Yoder said there had been a hopeful low in drug violence late last year.

Mr. MICHAEL YODER (U.S. Consulate, Nuevo Laredo, Mexico): But somehow in January things have gone terribly wrong. The murder rate has skyrocketed. It is now running at twice the rate of last year's record setting pace and also we've had a series of street battles once again in public places during the middle of the day that have caused people to start altering their lives again.

BURNETT: And where do the weapons used in these attacks against border patrol agents and journalists and others come from? Earlier this month U.S. Federal Agents announced the capture of large caches of fully automatic weapons and homemade grenades in Laredo, Texas. Mexican police agencies are deeply concerned by evidence that many of the illegal weapons used in gangland violence in their country are smuggled from the United States. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.

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