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Guard Adds Armed Troops to Border Vigil

Times Staff Writer

Escalating their role in narcotics and alien interdiction, California National Guard troops have begun armed operations along the U. S.-Mexico border in cooperation with federal and local law-enforcement agencies.

The deployment of unarmed Guard units at U. S. ports of entry last month has been widely publicized, but the posting of an unknown number of armed guardsmen in certain regions of the border area has been kept secret for security reasons, Guard officers say.

“There are guardsmen in the southern desert area. They are armed,” said Maj. Michael Ritz, a spokesman for the California Guard.

An Expanded Role

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Officials also said the Guard units have expanded their original purpose beyond drug interdiction and are now reporting the presence of illegal aliens along the border.

The weapons, Ritz said, are strictly for protection. He said there had been “no incidents” involving the guardsmen. According to a report in the San Diego Union, the guardsmen are armed with military-issue M-16 assault rifles and wear camouflaged fatigues.

The secret armed operation has been under way since early last month, beginning at the same time as the much-publicized posting of unarmed guardsmen to work alongside U. S. Customs Service inspectors at ports of entry in Los Angeles, Long Beach and San Diego. Ritz declined to say how long the operation will continue.

Authorities described armed guardsmen’s role as one of observation, but disclosed few details of the operation. More details are expected to be revealed today at a news conference scheduled in Orange County.

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U. S. law strictly limits the role of guardsmen and other U. S. military units in civilian law enforcement, but some lawmakers have attempted to liberalize statutes to increase use of military personnel and equipment in the national anti-drug effort. Responding to such sentiments, Congress last year allocated $40 million for drug interdiction involvement by the National Guard, including almost $1 million earmarked for the California National Guard. Those funds are financing the current interdiction efforts, officials said.

Size of Force

All told, 200 to 300 guardsmen are involved in the operations in California, Ritz said. The guardsmen do not make arrests, Ritz said, but inform law-enforcement officers about suspected infractions.

“If the individual in the field observes something that could possibly be of an illegal nature, the information would be passed on to the appropriate law-enforcement agency,” Ritz said.

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The armed Guard mission, officials said, represents a revival of Operation Border Ranger, the anti-drug initiative that began and ended tragically last October when a Guard helicopter on its maiden nighttime surveillance flight plunged into an Imperial County mountainside. Killed were three guardsmen and five Southern California sheriff’s deputies--two from Los Angeles County and one each from Imperial, Orange and Riverside counties. That operation had been kept secret until the crash.

(The Oct. 24 crash was caused by pilot error and unlighted power-line towers, the Orange County Register reported Thursday. The newspaper quoted investigators as saying that the crew was probably focusing on a suspicious vehicle beneath it--it turned out to be a U. S. Border Patrol vehicle--and did not notice the power lines.)

Like the earlier initiative, Ritz said the new operation also involves air support, including helicopters.

Representatives from several Southern California sheriff’s departments are expected to participate in the new operation, dubbed Border Ranger II, although it was unclear which counties will commit personnel or already have. The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department will not participate because of budgetary constraints, a spokesman said.

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It appears that California is the only state bordering Mexico to have deployed armed guardsmen. Charles Conroy, a U. S. Customs Service spokesman for the region that covers Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, said only unarmed guardsmen are on border duty in those states.

Although Operation Border Ranger focused solely on drugs, it appears that its successor has expanded beyond the interdiction of narcotics to assisting in deterring the hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens who enter the United States from Mexico each year.

Robert Moschorak, associate regional commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, confirmed that the guardsmen were passing on details about unauthorized border crossers to authorities. “They have provided eyes and ears,” said Moschorak, who declined to elaborate.

The office of Gov. George Deukmejian was informed of the deployment of the guardsmen along the border and approved the plan, Ritz said.

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The plan for the use of the California guardsmen was approved by the National Guard Bureau in Washington, parent body of the Guard, a spokesman in Washington said.

The INS is one of a number of law-enforcement agencies involved in the operations, which are being overseen by the U. S. Customs Service, the agency that has principal responsibility for drug interdiction along the border.

John Miller, a Customs spokesman in Los Angeles, declined to comment on the matter, as did Allan Rappoport, Customs district director in San Diego.

The posting of any soldiers, armed or unarmed, is a sensitive issue in the U. S.-Mexico border area, where Guard deployments have raised fear of a “militarization” of the unique bicultural region. Past proposals to post U. S. troops along the border have provoked outrage in Mexico, where former U. S. military occupations are still remembered with bitterness.

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The posting of armed Guard units has already triggered criticism in the border area, although there has been no official reaction from the Mexican government.

“This confirms our worst fears,” said Roberto Martinez, co-chairman of the Coalition for Law & Justice, a rights group. “These people are trained in only one thing, and that’s military force.”


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