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California and the West

Mexico Denies Drug Patrol Entered U.S.

Border: Officials admit that a six-member squad was near the spot where American agents reported being pinned down by gunfire from soldiers.

November 03, 2000|KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Mexican authorities have acknowledged that an anti-drug squad was patrolling near where U.S. Border Patrol agents last week reported a confrontation with armed men north of the border, U.S. officials said Thursday.

But Mexico, which said six soldiers were looking for drug smuggling, maintains that the squad did not cross into the United States or fire weapons, U.S. officials said.

Meanwhile, the union representing Border Patrol agents in San Diego says the agency downplayed the seriousness of the Oct. 24 confrontation, during which it says uniformed men pursued a pair of agents on the U.S. side.

After the incident, Border Patrol officials said a squad of unidentified men crossed during daylight into remote Copper Canyon, about four miles east of the Otay Mesa port of entry. Officials said its agents called out, identifying themselves as border officers, and summoned help after hearing gunshots. But the agency said it was unclear if the shots came from the group.

But National Border Patrol Council Local 1613 is offering a more dramatic account, saying two agents were pinned by gunfire and pursued on U.S. soil by 10 men, who wore military-style uniforms and carried rifles with bayonets.

The union said snipers took positions on each side of the border while others searched U.S. terrain, pointing their rifles toward the border agents and ordering them out of the bushes where they had taken cover.

The group returned to Mexico when two more Border Patrol agents showed up, the union said.

A spokesman said the union was airing its version, based on agents' accounts, because it felt the Border Patrol had whitewashed the matter. The union did not make the agents available for comment.

"We all know we face some dangers in our jobs," L. Keith Weeks, vice president of Local 1613, said Thursday. "But in something like this--it's something that shouldn't happen, that should be brought to light."

William T. Veal, Border Patrol chief in San Diego, said the incident was taken seriously and was the subject of talks with Mexican counterparts. "Whether they crossed into the United States or not we may never definitively establish," Veal said.

But he said the episode showed the need for cross-border communication when such exercises take place.

"Our concern is that when elements of the government are going to operate in the immediate border vicinity, there needs to be a coordination mechanism," Veal said.

The incident pricked sensitivities ever close to the surface at the border, where issues of sovereignty and fair treatment can snarl binational relations and provide instant talk-show fodder.

When a U.S. Marine was jailed on gun charges last year after inadvertently crossing into Mexico with disassembled weapons in his truck, U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon) drew up a list of cases in which Mexican authorities strayed into the United States but were allowed to return home.

Mexico, too, has complained that U.S. agents have strayed onto its soil in chasing undocumented immigrants.

The union compared the incident to a March 14 case in which Mexican soldiers patrolling against drugs crashed through a border fence west of El Paso and fired at agents. Weeks said such incidents highlight the dangers of working in remote border areas, where smuggling of drugs and immigrants is a high-stakes criminal enterprise.

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