Armed Mexican government personnel made unauthorized incursions into the United States five times in the last three months of 2005, including one incident last month in Southern California, according to confidential Department of Homeland Security records.
The crossings involved police officers or soldiers in military vehicles and were among 231 such incidents recorded by the U.S. Border Patrol in the last 10 years.
The records obtained by The Times provide new details on more than a dozen incursions into the U.S., including the five most recent ones.
Details of the incidents emerged as authorities on both sides of the border scrambled to investigate a dangerous confrontation Monday in Texas.
Heavily armed personnel in a military-style Humvee from Mexico helped drug smugglers fleeing police to escape back across the border, according to authorities. An internal Border Patrol summary of the incident said the Humvee was equipped with a .50-caliber machine gun.
It was the second such incident in three months in the same rural county southeast of El Paso.
"It's clear you're dealing with a large number of incursions by bona-fide Mexican military units, based on the tactics and the equipment being used," said T.J. Bonner, a Border Patrol veteran and president of the agents union.
Reports of incursions into the U.S. by gun-toting groups of men dressed in what appeared to be military or police uniforms along the Mexican frontier have become a powerful rallying point for advocates of illegal immigration crackdowns and tighter border security.
The incursions have also intensified a long-running debate over the merits of fencing the 2,000-mile Mexican border, now a patchwork of metal barriers, rusted and broken barbed wire and expanses of rugged terrain where the divide is difficult to identify. In Texas, the Rio Grande separates the two nations.
U.S. Border Patrol Chief David V. Aguilar said that incursions by Mexican government personnel were nothing new, and that U.S. agents on occasion have crossed accidentally into Mexico. He noted that incursions have declined by more than 50% since 2002. Still, with assault rates against agents at record highs, any incursion is taken "very seriously."
"These are not taken lightly at any level within the Border Patrol
U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said in an interview Wednesday that this week's incident in Texas was "about as serious as it gets" and noted that dozens of reported incursions have occurred in his state.
The encounters seriously undermine efforts to stop the flow of drugs coming across the U.S. border and suggest possible cooperation among Mexican authorities and traffickers, he said.
"You do not want to get into a fight with guys carrying machine guns," said Kyl, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Homeland Security.
He has asked the State Department to investigate the incursions and said that he plans to hold a hearing on the issue in March. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), a leading anti-illegal immigration lawmaker, called this week for U.S. troops to be deployed along the border to counter armed incursions.
Mexican officials on Wednesday denied that their police and military have been involved in illicit crossings but said they are investigating Monday's incident.
In recent interviews, local and federal law enforcement officials in south Texas and the San Diego area said a long pattern of encounters with Mexican government units along the border have bolstered suspicions that their counterparts work with smugglers. In Laredo, Texas, authorities said they have repeatedly seen Mexican military units clearing people from brushy areas along the south banks of the Rio Grande shortly before loads of migrants and drugs are brought across.
Several of the incidents described in the Department of Homeland Security reports appeared to involve Mexican officials getting lost or pursuing suspects. For example, five Tijuana police officers pursued two men across the border in 2004. Some of the officers fired at the suspects while on U.S. soil, according to a Border Patrol report. The police returned to Mexico after arresting the men.
Other encounters were more suspicious and add to concerns among many U.S. law enforcement officials that corruption in Mexico is eroding efforts to gain control of the border and combat trafficking in humans and drugs.
In October, Border Patrol agents in the El Cajon area east of San Diego reported seeing Humvees on the south side of the border fence. Minutes later, they saw two men in Mexican military uniforms carrying rifles in a creek bed north of the border, according to the records. When an agent approached, the two men ran south and drove off in the Humvees. Agents found footprints indicating three or four individuals had come north of the border and then returned.
Other incidents included Mexican helicopters flying north into U.S. airspace near El Paso for about 15 minutes, five Mexican officials armed with assault rifles entering the country near El Centro and returning without incident, and two Mexican police officers observed wandering along the U.S. side of the border near Yuma, Ariz.
Witnesses in El Paso reported in 2004 that a Mexican military-style helicopter landed just south of the border and armed men in federal police uniforms crossed into the U.S. and questioned them about vehicles before returning to Mexico, according to a Border Patrol report.
A spokesman for the Mexican Embassy in Washington, Rafael Laveaga, said Wednesday that he had not seen the report and declined to comment.
He said there have been accidental entries across the border in recent years by both U.S. and Mexican law enforcement personnel. As a result of those incidents, Mexican military units are prohibited from coming within a mile of the U.S. border unless they receive authorization from commanders to pursue criminals, Laveaga said.
Many U.S. law enforcement authorities paint a different picture.
"Every time traffickers come across, the military is close by," said Sheriff Arvin West of Hudspeth County, Texas, where Monday's standoff occurred. He said military crossings occur weekly in his county and are so common that "people don't even report it anymore."
Monday's incident is being investigated by U.S., Texas and Mexican authorities. But initial accounts appear to make it one of the clearest examples yet of either private militia or government troops aiding traffickers.
A confidential Border Patrol summary of the incident said it began when county sheriff's deputies and state troopers tried to stop three vehicles on an interstate highway southeast of El Paso. All three vehicles made a run for the border, the report said.
One vehicle, a black 2006 Cadillac Escalade loaded with nearly 1,500 pounds of marijuana in plastic-wrapped bales, was abandoned near the border, West said.
As deputies approached the river they saw a Mexican military Humvee on the U.S. side, West said. A second vehicle bogged down in ankle-deep water in the Rio Grande, while the other made it back to Mexico.
"The Humvee attempted to push and pull [the stuck vehicle] toward Mexico to no avail," the Border Patrol summary said.
At that point, West said, Mexican soldiers and civilians began unloading marijuana from the stranded vehicle. About 20 Mexican personnel in military uniforms, with insignias on their caps, took up positions on the south side of the river and pointed automatic rifles at about half a dozen sheriff's deputies and state troopers.
"They were daring my guys to make a move," West said.
As deputies took photos, the uniformed men burned the vehicle after it had been unloaded, then retreated into Mexico.
Laveaga, the Mexican embassy spokesman, said his country's military units in the area do not use Humvees or the types of weapons described by U.S. authorities. He noted that Mexican drug-smuggling rings have been known to use military uniforms and weapons.
Bonner, of the border agents union, questioned how anyone "can move around in a Humvee with a 50-cal on it unless they have the permission of the government."
West said the confrontation was similar to an incident in mid-November in the same area. In that incident, sheriff's deputies and Border Patrol agents who intercepted a disabled dump truck filled with several tons of marijuana were backed off by heavily armed, uniformed men described by West as military personnel.
A bulldozer appeared on the Mexican side, West said, and towed the truck back across the border.
Texas has launched its own investigation of this week's incident, said Rachael Novier, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry. Regardless of who was involved on the Mexican side, she said, "it was unacceptable."