Pubdate: Sun, 27 Nov 2005
Source: Dallas Morning News (TX)
Copyright: 2005 The Dallas Morning News
Author: David McLemore, The Dallas Morning News
Note: Staff Writers Alfredo Corchado in Mexico City and Diane 
Jennings in Dallas contributed to this report.
Bookmark: (President Bush)


DEL RIO, Texas - Val Verde County Sheriff D'Wayne Jernigan has dealt 
with smugglers and drug gangs for decades, both as sheriff and as a 
customs agent.

But in the last year, the risks of drug-fueled terrorism have raised 
the stakes to scary levels. Rifles and handguns have been replaced by 
rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs, and high-caliber machine guns.

"Now the bad guys have more sophisticated training and better 
equipment," Sheriff Jernigan said. "They're better armed and willing to shoot."

This month, Border Patrol officials reported that assaults against 
agents all along the border nearly doubled from the previous year.

As President Bush prepares to tour the U.S.-Mexico border this week, 
law enforcement officials in counties up and down Texas' 1,200-mile 
border with Mexico are coping with issues of national security, 
increased illegal immigration, and a growing fear that the drug 
cartels are moving upriver and just across the border from here.

Val Verde County, a stony outcrop of sheep and goat ranches and 
sharply etched limestone canyons, rests along the Rio Grande 150 
miles west of San Antonio.

It's biggest city, Del Rio, and its Mexican neighbor, Ciudad Acuna, 
have missed the explosion of drug violence that has enmeshed Laredo 
and Nuevo Laredo 180 miles downriver.

But law enforcement officials know it's coming. They've seen the signs.

"We're in a time of transition," said Chief Deputy Terry Simons.

"Our concerns are just how strongly the cartels' sphere of influence 
will extend through this county."

Federal investigators have blamed the increasing level of violence 
along the border on the bloody turf battle between three violent 
cartels, a battle leaving 158 dead and accounting for more than 40 
kidnappings in Nuevo Laredo alone.

The FBI has told Congress that the continuing violence centered in 
that city stems from the battle between rival smuggling 
organizations: the Matamoros-based Gulf cartel, remnants of the 
Juarez cartel and Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman's Federation, a splinter 
group of the Juarez organization.

"We've gathered intelligence that indicates the Zetas, the Gulf 
cartel's enforcers, are making an appearance in Ciudad Acuna," Chief 
Deputy Simons said. There's also an indication of a presence of 
MS-13, a Colombian-born drug gang with tentacles in the United States 
that provides muscle for the Guzman cartel.

"To make matters worse, a few months ago we picked up information 
that a new order went out from the Zetas that no more drug loads 
would be lost," he said. "It used to be that losing a load now and 
then was a cost of doing business. Now the Zetas are telling their 
people they can't give up a load. They're to fight the cops. ...

"We're caught in the middle until somebody wins," Chief Deputy Simons 
said. "It's not just drug smuggling anymore. You have to think of it 
as narco-terrorism."

Gangs have ties in U.S.

In a Nov. 17 congressional hearing on border security, Chris Swecker, 
FBI assistant director for criminal investigations, testified that 
each of the competing cartels has cemented ties to U.S. street and 
prison gangs, including the Texas Mexican Mafia, the Texas Syndicate 
and Los Hermanos de Pistoleros Latinos, or The Brotherhood of Latin Gunmen.

For the border sheriffs, it is, at best, an uneven battle.

Sheriff Jernigan has 13 deputies to patrol a county of 3,100 square 
miles - roughly three-fourths the size of New Jersey. Most of the 
county's 45,000 residents live in Del Rio. The rest are scattered 
across isolated ranches and small communities, connected to state 
highways via gravel ranch roads or private twisting dirt roads. The 
deputies also patrol roughly 90 miles of river frontage, including 
thick stands of carrizo (cane) and limestone cliffs.

Val Verde County provides each deputy with a military-style automatic 
rifle and a vehicle. Deputies supply their own side arm. Each vehicle 
- - usually a heavy-duty four-wheel drive truck - is equipped with 
water, food, extra fuel, tow straps, a GPS device, a change of 
clothes and extra ammunition, much of it paid for out of the deputies' pockets.

In the rocky, isolated terrain, radios frequently don't work and 
cellphone coverage fades not far from the city limits.

"When you're out there, driving ... to some call about a man with a 
gun, you're by yourself," Deputy Joe Faz said. "The other deputy on 
duty has to watch the rest of the county. You can call the Border 
Patrol for backup, but you know they're 20 minutes or more away. So 
it's just you."

Six months ago, a smuggler's car was seized with a highly 
sophisticated communication system superior to anything the deputies 
have in their vehicles. And last year, deputies found a modern 
baseball-style grenade along a dirt path leading up from the river. 
They believe someone running security for a load of drugs dropped it. 
Deputies have also gathered information on smugglers armed with an 
RPG-7, a shoulder-fired rocket, and white phosphorous grenades.

"What we need is money to put more boots on the ground and give these 
guys better training and equipment," Sheriff Jernigan said.

"But this isn't just our fight. ... If border law enforcement doesn't 
work, than the rest of the country is going to lose."

Bracing for Violence

That sentiment is echoed all along the border.

"El Paso County sees these types of criminal behaviors more often 
than we would like," El Paso County Sheriff Leo Samaniego said. "The 
border is so wide open this will be problematic until lawmakers in 
Washington, D.C., address these national-security concerns."

Officials on both sides of the border in the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez 
area are bracing for an increase in drug violence.

Two weeks ago, gunmen killed two Mexican police officers in Ciudad 
Juarez. And earlier in the month, police found the bodies of a former 
Interpol chief and his lawyer crammed into oil drums and sealed with 
concrete. Both men appeared to have been suffocated with plastic 
bags, authorities said.

Ciudad Juarez, a city of 1.3 million, is infamous for its powerful 
drug hub controlled by the Juarez cartel, whose No. 2 leader was 
arrested Nov. 11, along with other suspects. .

When President Bush visits El Paso this week, said Manuel Mora, the 
new FBI agent-in-charge, he will discover that while counterterrorism 
remains the top national security issue, drug trafficking remains the 
priority and poses the biggest criminal threat for the border city 
across from Ciudad Juarez.

"This is El Paso, Texas, and everyone here is vigilant about the drug 
problem and the crime that comes with it," said Mr. Mora. "I can't 
say that I've seen any of the alarming signs, but that doesn't mean 
we're not concerned," he said.

A senior Mexican intelligence official, however, had this sober 
assessment: "We're seeing the violence gradually move from the Nuevo 
Laredo region up the Rio Grande into the Juarez-Chihuahua area," the 
official said. "The war continues. What changes are the battle sites."

Sheriffs Want Help

This year, the sheriffs of 16 Texas counties joined forces to form 
the Texas Border Sherriffs' Coalition to lobby state and federal 
officials for help. They recently received a $500,000 state grant 
from Gov. Rick Perry.

"We know that border violence has escalated in Nuevo Laredo, and we 
have heard about activity pushing west towards El Paso County," said 
Rick Glancey, interim executive director of the group. "With the 
presence of the Texas Border Sheriffs' Coalition, we hope to 
intercept those problems before they make a hard push in any direction."

The coalition enthusiastically endorsed a bill introduced Nov. 17 by 
U.S. Reps. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, and John Culberson, R-Houston, 
which would authorize $100 million to pay the direct costs of 
training and equipping additional deputies and pay overtime costs. It 
would also direct some funds to build detention beds to house illegal 
immigrants taken into custody.

The Homeland Security Department recently addressed another major 
complaint of border sheriffs - the loophole in immigration law that 
allowed illegal immigrants from nations other than Mexico, known as 
OTMs, to be released with a "notice to appear," pending deportation 

This month, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced a 
temporary stop of the notice to appear - known derisively along the 
border as "catch and release" - as part of a new border security 
initiative that includes funding for additional Border Patrol agents.

"If they want to fix it, they need to make it permanent," Sheriff 
Jernigan said. "The OTMs were coming through in droves from all over 
the world. They'd come up to us, asking where to find a Border Patrol 
agent. We'd see them later, waiting to hitch a ride along Highway 90. 
And no one had any idea of where they were going or what they might 
do once they got there."

It's Not Just Drugs

Not all the border concerns stem from drugs or illegal immigration. 
In Vega Verde, a neighborhood along the river west of Del Rio that 
borders a major smuggling route,thieves come across the river, hit 
the homes there and get back to Mexico before deputies can arrive.

"They're taking guns, jewelry, air conditioners, anything they can 
get on a raft and get across," Deputy Faz said. "Landowners are 
frustrated. And my concern is that people will start taking the law 
in their own hands. What's going to happen if residents take up their 
hunting rifles against some Zetas bringing a load of dope across?"

Recently, deputies frustrated with the inaction of Mexican 
authorities staged an impromptu raid, taking boats across the river 
and seizing stolen property.

"The funny thing is, with all this activity on the river, the Border 
Patrol never showed up," Deputy Jose Luis Blancarte said. "We're 
bringing back TVs and air conditioners and nobody saw it? We don't 
have to worry about terrorists sneaking suitcase nukes across the 
border. They could be bringing whole bombs, and no one would know."

The border sheriffs say their main concern is the safety of their 
residents. "We don't want to be immigration officers," Sheriff 
Jernigan said. "We just want to make sure our counties are safe. To 
do that we need help, and that help has to come from the federal government.

"My nightmare is that it will take another 9-11 attack to wake up 
this country about the vulnerability of the border," he said. "And 
some border sheriff is going to have to say it came through his county."
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake