THE United States Border Patrol, front-line army in the war against illegal drugs, has suffered a sharp cut in manpower under the Bush administration. The patrol, which is responsible for about 40 percent of the cocaine confiscations along the US-Mexican border, has lost 399 officers so far this year. Total strength dropped from 4,204 on Jan. 1 to 3,805 on Sept. 30.
At this time, border patrolmen who quit or retire are not being replaced. As a result, the Border Patrol's strength could shrink to as few as 3,577 men and women by the end of the current fiscal year, federal officials estimate.
Reason for the cutback: a budget squeeze at the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), of which the Border Patrol is a branch.
The loss of manpower for a major drug-fighting agency like the Border Patrol comes at an awkward time for President Bush's war on illegal narcotics.
Federal and state pressure on drug dealers here in south Florida is forcing smugglers to send larger quantities of narcotics across the Southwestern border.
The Border Patrol has prime responsibility for guarding that frontier, but must do it with fewer and fewer officers.
In the heavily trafficked San Diego-San Ysidro sector, for example, the number of patrolmen is declining steadily. As of Oct. 2, San Diego sector had only 712 officers on duty out of a total authorized strength of 1,074.
Texas also is feeling the crunch. In the McAllen sector, which covers 16,000 square miles along the Mexican border and the Gulf of Mexico, there are currently 48 vacancies out of an authorized strength of 450.
New officers are supplied to the agency by the US Border Patrol Academy near Brunswick, Ga. The academy puts recruits through a rigorous 18-week training program. But under the new federal budget for 1990, only 24 men and women will go through the academy - all of them recycled from the previous year.
Behind the Border Patrol's troubles is a budget squeeze brought on by at least two factors.
Perhaps most important was a crisis earlier this year along the Texas border. Thousands of illegal immigrants from Nicaragua and other Central American countries descended on the McAllen sector in January. Many were apprehended and detained.
The cost of processing these immigrants was large - $28 million - and it left the INS budget depleted. In addition, the previous INS commissioner, Alan Nelson, stepped up recruitment for the Border Patrol during 1988 in anticipation of a larger role for the agency in the drug war.
Although Congress had indicated to the INS a desire for a 50 percent expansion in Border Patrol strength, it later failed to come through with the money - and caught INS without the cash to pay for the entire expansion. As a result, a training class of 400 new officers was canceled, and a hiring freeze was imposed.
A senior Border Patrol official says he is ``apprehensive'' about the recent decline in strength. Another senior patrol official says that top officers in the San Diego sector are ``very concerned'' about the decline in manpower.
The San Diego district has particularly difficult problems because of the high cost of living there. Border patrolmen often serve a couple of years in California, then are transferred to Texas or other areas where their modest salaries go further.
But the current INS budget squeeze makes it harder for the government to pay for transfers, and patrolmen are not being moved as quickly out of San Diego. It's a serious morale problem for the department, and could result in the loss of even more officers, an official concedes.
Adding to the department's difficulties is the absence of a new commissioner. Though President Bush has indicated his choice, Gene McNary of St. Louis, the appointment still hasn't won approval in the Senate.
One INS official says: ``The bottom line is, you can't have an organization that has a tremendously important mission that doesn't have clear direction. It just doesn't work. We need to get our direction, whatever it is.''
One senior Border Patrol official says the need for additional manpower is acute. As drug merchants move their shipments to the Southwest, the patrol needs to expand its operations along the 1,953-mile border with Mexico. At the same time, the number of illegal aliens has begun to increase there for the first time since 1986.
The current hiring freeze is having a serious effect on the patrol's efforts, including both the prevention of illegal immigration and the interruption of illegal imports of drugs, he says.
Second in a series of occasional articles about US border problems.