Are Mexican drug cartels escalating attacks against US border officials?

Recent reports suggest that assaults on US officials on the Mexico border may have tripled since 2004, but a look at these 'attacks' shows that the danger they pose may be exaggerated.

By , Guest blogger

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    Mexican police and forensic experts examine the scene after a US border patrol agent shot and killed a man at the US- Mexico border in Tijuana, Mexico, on June 21, 2011. Two men assaulted two Border Patrol agents after crossing the border illegally, a Border Patrol spokesman said.
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According to an article in Mexico’s El Universal, the Border Patrol and other US law enforcement agencies that work along the border have seen an increase in the number of attacks by Mexican drug cartels in recent months. This claim is bolstered by a 2010 Congressional Research Service report on border violence, which indicates that such attacks have increased from 773 recorded incidents in 2005 to 1,073 in 2009.

The Mexican paper cites Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), who provides even more dramatic statistics. Mr. McCraw says there were only 356 attacks in 2004, meaning that their frequency may have tripled in a five year period.

According to McCraw, this is partly due to the fact that cartels are under increased pressure to limit the amount of their product that is seized by authorities. At one time, members of drug cartels threw out their drug shipments or abandoned their vehicles when confronted by US agents, according to McCraw. But today, drug cartels have less tolerance for failure. The DPS official claimed that shipments of drugs and undocumented migrants are now vigorously protected, with gangs using high-speed automobiles and being prepared for direct confrontations with the authorities.

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As evidence, McCraw referred El Universal to an incident that occurred on June 9, in which Border Patrol officers in Texas came upon several men unloading more than 1,200 pounds of marijuana on the Mexican side of the border who began to throw rocks and sticks at the agents. The officials said that, after they heard “at least six” gunshots, they opened fire on the men. As the Houston Chronicle noted, the American agents allegedly shot around 300 rounds in the incident.

Since the incident, US officials have identified the men as members of the Gulf Cartel. If true, this would fit with a Drug Enforcement Administration bulletin obtained by Homeland Security Today in early June, which claimed that “the Gulf Cartel has directed [that] no more ‘drug loads’ in the US will be lost (to law enforcement).”

However, the vast majority of these “clashes" are instances of unarmed civilians throwing rocks, sticks, and bottles at border agents, who frequently fire their weapons in retaliation. In fact, this has long been a vexing diplomatic issue between the US and Mexico, and the latter country has repeatedly accused US agents of using excessive force.

The most recent such incident occurred in Tijuana on June 21, when three men attempted to jump the border fence which separates the city from San Diego. When US law enforcement officials captured one of them, his associates began to throw rocks and other projectiles at them, according to the agents. In response, a Border Patrol agent shot one of the men in the head. As CNN reports, Mexican President Felipe Calderon has condemned the killing, and asked the United States to punish the officer responsible.

Although McCraw’s remarks are sure to fuel fears of “spillover violence” and trigger more calls for increased security at the border, it’s worth pointing out that the incidence of attacks is still relatively low, considering the number of Border Patrol agents along the border. As an internal Customs and Border Protection study obtained by the Associated Press last year revealed, only three percent of Border Patrol officers were assaulted in 2009, compared with 11 percent of police officers and sheriff's deputies assaulted nationwide during the same period.

--- Geoffrey Ramsey is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of his research here.

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