Pubdate: Mon, 03 Jun 2002
Source: Arizona Daily Star (AZ)
Copyright: 2002 Pulitzer Publishing Co.
Author: Tim Steller
Bookmark: (Cannabis)
Bookmark: (Corruption)


Federal agents seized a ton of marijuana in the southwestern Tohono O'odham 
Nation just a few hours before a U.S. Border Patrol agent in the same area 
reported being shot at by Mexican soldiers.

The coincidence of the smuggling attempt and the shooting has convinced 
some Border Patrol agents that the soldiers were involved in moving drug 
loads that afternoon.

Edward "Bud" Tuffly, the president of the Border Patrol agents union in 
Southern Arizona, called the coincidence "highly suspicious."

It appears, he said, "that the military was involved in drug smuggling down 
there, or at least protecting it."

The Mexican government has denied that its soldiers were even in the area 
where the shooting took place on the night of May 17. Further, Mexican 
officials have suggested that criminals dressed in military- style uniforms 
may have been responsible for the shooting, not actual soldiers.

In the past, Mexican soldiers have been involved both in fighting the 
illegal-drug trade and in corruptly aiding it for profit.

A Mexican investigation of the incident is not yet complete, and U.S. 
investigators are still looking into it, too. But U.S. Customs Service 
reports put the shooting in a new context.

About 2:30 on the afternoon of May 17, a customs helicopter crew flying 
over the southwestern Tohono O'odham Nation saw two vehicles crossing the 
border illegally, said customs spokesman Roger Maier. The crossing by a van 
and a Chevrolet Suburban took place about three miles east of Menager's 
Dam, which is about 100 miles southwest of Tucson.

When the helicopter came into view of the vehicles, both vehicles turned 
back south, Maier said. But the Suburban became disabled, and two people 
got out and ran back to Mexico, he said.

Inside the Suburban, agents found 2,172 pounds of marijuana, Maier said. 
The van made it back into Mexico.

About six hours later, a Border Patrol agent was working a few miles to the 
east, near Papago Farms, when he came across a Humvee carrying heavily 
armed people whom the agent identified as Mexican soldiers. The Humvee and 
the Border Patrol vehicle, a marked Chevrolet Tahoe, came within 100 yards 
of each other on the north side of the border, according to a Border Patrol 
report on the incident.

The agent turned to leave the area, then heard a gunshot tear through his 
vehicle as he fled, the report said.

Another incident involving a Humvee took place near Papago Farms that 
afternoon, but it is not clear whether it happened before or after the 
customs drug seizure. A Tohono O'odham police ranger reported he was chased 
by men in a military-looking Humvee, Tuffly said.

The agents in the Ajo station, including the one who was fired on, were 
informed of that incident at their afternoon muster before the shooting, 
Tuffly said.

Tohono O'odham Nation spokesmen have declined to offer details of the 
incident involving the ranger. However they acknowledged that tons of 
marijuana are moving through the nation.

In April, Tohono O'odham police seized 15,907 pounds of illegal drugs, 
almost all of it marijuana, tribal spokesman Matt Smith said. In the same 
month, customs agents working in the corridor where the shooting took place 
seized more than 22,000 pounds of marijuana.

If the alleged soldiers were really involved in smuggling, they may not 
have been helping transport a load themselves, said Ron Sanders, the chief 
of the U.S. Border Patrol's Tucson sector from 1995 to 1999. They could 
have been acting as a decoy to distract American law enforcement from loads 
moving through elsewhere.

"I don't think that's unusual," he said.
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