THE day-to-day atmosphere along America's lengthy border with Mexico has turned hostile - and often lethally dangerous. Lawlessness is rampant. Robberies, assaults, and rapes are commonplace. Border bandits attack immigrants crossing into the United States. Border patrolmen are fired upon by drug smugglers with high-powered weapons.
The grim mood is palpable along the frontiers of both Texas and California. Lawmen warn visitors to stay away from tense border areas unless they have an armed escort. They could be robbed or shot.
In Texas, when a reporter and photographer walk along the Rio Grande in Brownsville, and later in El Paso, groups of young Mexicans shout insults and make obscene gestures. Later, in California, the same photographer is bombarded with stones as he works 300 yards from the border.
``We live with that kind of thing every day,'' says a border patrolman in Brownsville.
Federal officials are extremely concerned. They say that drug runners, alien smugglers, border bandits, and petty criminals are threatening the safety of US law enforcement officers as well as ordinary citizens.
Agents along the border say they desperately need help from the Bush White House, but none has been forthcoming.
A number of recent developments illustrate the problem.
Along the Texas border, gangs of Mexican bandits are preying on aliens who enter the US illegally. Large numbers of persons from Mexico, Central and South America and Asia are being robbed, beaten, and raped as they cross the Rio Grande.
In the El Paso area, border patrolmen avoid the riverfront because of the growing danger of being shot from the Mexican side. One US agent complains: ``Every other guy over there [in Mexico] has got an automatic.''
Along the California-Mexico border at Imperial Beach, the Border Patrol reports 164 recent incidents in which their men were the target of rocks thrown by Mexicans. To protect against flying stones, some Border Patrol vehicles are being retrofitted with steel mesh over the windows.
Customs agents, wary of drug smugglers, now get regularly scheduled shotgun training. Meanwhile, agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Texas recently were issued 9mm submachine guns.
Break-ins and thefts at homes, farms, isolated ranches, and businesses along the border are increasing, while an epidemic of auto theft is reported along much of the Texas-Mexico and California-Mexico border.
Sadistic crimes, involving torture and mutilation, are occurring in southern Texas and in nearby parts of Mexico. Most involve drug deals gone bad.
US officials have pleaded with Mexico for help, but have received little assistance.
William Veal, acting chief, Border Patrol San Diego sector, says of the Mexicans: ``We have solicited their cooperation, but frankly we have been unsuccessful.''
Border cities are the hardest hit, with crime on the increase. But crimes and violence also are spilling inland to cities like Los Angeles and Houston.
US officials, who remember happier times on the border, lament the change.
Jerry Hicks, deputy chief patrol agent along the 280-mile McAllen sector of Texas, says drug smugglers are primarily responsible for the new difficulties.
``The border has become very violent. A lot of aliens now are carrying drugs - backpacking the drugs as they cross the river,'' Mr. Hicks says.
``Nearly all of them use weapons for warnings. You hear lots of shooting. If the Border Patrol is around, someone on the US side will fire several round into the air as a warning.
``Our agents are getting in more and more shootouts,'' Hicks says. ``I've been here 29 years, and this is the first time we've had anything like this.''
In his most recent official report on the McAllen sector, chief patrol agent Silvestre Reyes said bluntly: ``The honest truth is that officers armed with six-shot revolvers ... commit virtual suicide when they are forced to stop drug traffickers armed with 30-shot fully automatic weapons, weapons capable of cutting the agent to pieces.''
Ernie Tejerina, chief inspector in Brownsville, has served with the US Customs Service for 20 years. ``When I began, we were not authorized to carry a weapon,'' he recalls. ``Today, we get shotgun training.''
Some Customs agents feel so threatened that they refuse to put their names in the telephone book, Mr. Tejerina says.
American officials are struggling to understand the changed mood in Mexico.
Tom Gilbert, Border Patrol agent in Rio Grande City, Texas, says demographics partly explains the situation. Living along the US border now is a ``younger, more materialistic-oriented generation'' of Mexicans, he says.
Previously, most Mexicans who entered the US, or worked along the border, were ``more docile. They never fought back against a US agent. But this is a different breed of cats today.''
Agent Veal in California uses similar words: ``Years ago we dealt with agricultural laborers from rural parts of Mexico. Now we are dealing with urban dwellers who are city-wise. They're a different breed of cat. Very contentious. They are inclined to resist being arrested and will confront officers physically.''
Chief agent Reyes blames economic hard times south of the border for the new atmosphere.
``It's a sign of the economic depression, not only in Mexico, but in Central and South America,'' he suggests. ``Whether it's out of desperation, or just an ingrained hardness, it is anybody's guess. [But] it's testimony to the world we live in. The border now is rife with criminal activity.''
The solution? US officials say two things are needed. First, more police manpower along the frontiers. But that's not happening. The Bush White House has actually cut the Border Patrol's strength by 10 percent this year.
Second, more cooperation by Mexico. US officials in a few places, like Imperial County, Calif., have gotten assistance from Mexico. It helps. Border crime dropped sharply. Again, police say they need support from President Bush, who could do some diplomatic coaxing.
Until that happens, officials along America's border worry that things will only get worse.
One in a series of articles about US border problems.