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Patrols Border on Danger

Law: Military finds niche in drug war as reports of gunfire, intrusions surface.

June 29, 1997|H.G. REZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ON THE U.S.-MEXICO BORDER — The two young soldiers, faces camouflaged, armed with M-16 assault rifles and .45-caliber pistols, lay in the desert sand 25 miles west of Yuma, Ariz., peering into Mexico. The darkness of a Southern California night made conditions perfect for their night-vision equipment.

The National Guard soldiers from the Los Alamitos-based 40th Infantry Division were there to observe and listen, part of the military's silent war on drugs along the border.

"Some nights there's no activity," one said. "We haven't come close to being in a firefight, but you do feel a rush when you're doing your job right--looking at a group of people without them knowing you're there."

The military had been secretly patrolling the border until gunfire erupted recently in Texas: Last month, the leader of a Marine team from Camp Pendleton fatally shot an 18-year-old U.S. citizen in Redford, and in January, an Army Green Beret wounded a Mexican drug smuggler during a gunfight near Brownsville.

Weeks later, California National Guard officials invited a Times reporter to spend three days and nights with infantry soldiers along the border.

Eager to demonstrate that their units operate under strict rules of engagement, the National Guard for the first time allowed a reporter to visit a front-line listening and observation post in what has become an increasingly controversial part of the war on drug smuggling.

Last week, Congress approved a measure that would authorize the stationing of as many as 10,000 troops along the U.S.-Mexico border to help stop illegal immigration and combat drug trafficking.

Mexican Ambassador Jesus Silva Herzog said last week in Anaheim that putting troops along the border "would be complete nonsense."

On the front lines last week, the two soldiers from Team Wolf at the desert listening post were aware of the danger and prepared to defend themselves, even though no shootings have been reported along the border in California. Hiding beneath a creosote bush, their weapons were "at the ready" and their bulletproof vests were laced uncomfortably tight.

The troops involved say they feel the adrenaline, fear and boredom common in combat.

For hours, the only sound was the eerie wind blowing across the crackling brush. Occasionally, they would cock their heads in the direction of Mexico, only 30 yards away. Conversation was limited to whispers.

About 90 miles to the west, Guard soldiers from Team Shadow, part of the 40th Division, looked through heat-sensitive gun sights mounted on four-wheel-drive vehicles pointed toward Mexico and O'Neill Valley, a route favored by smugglers.

Hunkered down on two mountain peaks, the soldiers from Team Shadow detected dozens of people crossing into the United States or gathering on the Mexican side of the border.

"This is what we do best. We catch dope," said the Team Shadow leader, a staff sergeant who asked that his name not be used to ensure his safety. "But we're fighting guys who have unlimited funds and resources. They operate seven days a week, and sooner or later they find a way to bring their loads across."

Security is a big concern for the troops. Soldiers working on a border fence and road are kept under surveillance by people with binoculars on the Mexican side, prompting the soldiers to cover their name tags. In addition, both sides monitor each other's radio communications.

Also positioned along the border were Marine Force Reconnaissance teams, and at the south end of the Cleveland National Forest, Special Forces troops kept a lookout for suspicious aircraft officials believe are owned by drug smugglers that enter the United States.

Team Shadow also kept a Mexican Army patrol vehicle that pulled to a stop a few feet from the California line under special observation.

In the past nine months, U.S. soldiers and their commanders say they have spotted other Mexican Army patrols operating as far as five miles north of the border.

A spokesman for the Mexican government confirmed that his country's troops have accidentally strayed onto U.S. soil from time to time. However, military officials said the Mexican soldiers could not have intruded that far by mistake.

Military officials said that U.S. Army, Marine Corps and National Guard troops have conducted more than 3,000 missions along the 1,700-mile border in the past seven years. Their impact on drug traffic is unclear.

Critics have protested the government's decision to use soldiers to perform a job that traditionally had been left to civilian law enforcement agencies.

Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) said he has never supported these military patrols without the presence of Border Patrol agents.

Reyes, who worked with the military when he was chief of the Border Patrol in El Paso, said he is especially troubled by the absence of Border Patrol agents at the soldiers' listening and observation posts.

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