ON THE 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 viewing 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 U.S.-Mexico 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 patrolling the border in secret until gunfire erupted last month in Redford, Texas, when the leader of a Marine team from Camp Pendleton shot an 18-year-old U.S. citizen, killing him. In January, a U.S. Army Green Beret wounded a Mexican drug smuggler during an exchange of gunfire near Brownsville, Texas.
California National Guard officials recently 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 up to 10,000 U.S. troops along the Mexican border to help stop illegal immigration and combat drug trafficking.
But the Mexican ambassador to the United States, Jesus Silva Herzog, said that putting troops on 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 on the California border. As they hid beneath a creosote bush, their weapons were "at the ready" and their bulletproof vests were laced uncomfortably tight.
The troops involved in such reconnaissance patrols say they feel the adrenaline, fear and boredom common in combat.
For hours, the only sound was the wind blowing eerily across the crackling brush. Occasionally, the soldiers would cock their heads in the direction of Mexico, only 30 yards away. Their conversation was limited to whispers.
About 90 miles to the west, soldiers from the Guard's Team Shadow, part of the 40th Division, looked through heat-sensitive gun sights mounted on four-wheel-drive vehicles pointed toward Mexico and the nearby O'Neill Valley, a route favored by smugglers.
The men from Team Shadow, hunkered down on two mountain peaks, 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 because it could jeopardize 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 observers 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, which officials believe are owned by drug smugglers and have been spotted entering the United States.
In addition to observing the border crossers, Team Shadow 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 four to five miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border.
A spokesman for the Mexican government confirmed that his country's troops have strayed into U.S. soil from time to time by accident. However, U.S. military officials believe that the Mexican soldiers could not have moved that far inland by mistake.
Military officials said that 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), a former Border Patrol chief in El Paso, said he has never supported the military patrolling the border without the presence of Border Patrol agents.