When Border Patrol agent Robert Mossman arrives at a busy illegal crossing point along the Rio Grande in his Ford Excursion, he knows that - if he finds someone - he'll likely be outnum-bered, sometimes 100 to 1.
What's more, if these individuals are criminal aliens, especially drug smugglers, he knows they could have guns.
"I don't even think about it," says the tall, brawny native of El Paso, one of seven agents on this day patrolling a 90-mile section of river and brushland. "That's what's wild about the Border Patrol. You never know what you're getting into."
The border - long teeming with activity - is today bristling with weapons. Arizona ranchers are patrolling their pastures against what they call an "invasion" of illegal immigrants. More and more Border Patrol agents are arriving, increasing contact - and sometimes confrontation - with migrants. And both immigrants and smugglers are taking steps to arm themselves.
Amid this escalation of tensions, the level of violence along the 2,000-mile US-Mexico border has risen dramatically during the past few months. It's an issue that strikes an emotional chord in Mexico, where every border death becomes fodder for outrage. But it is also having repercussions in the United States, where violence and vigilante justice are forcing officials to reconsider how they can effectively control the border without turning the region into a militarized zone.
Since January 1999, there have been 32 cases of vigilante justice, where US citizens have detained and in some cases shot illegal border crossers.
In the past few months, homeowners in the west Texas town of Del Rio have shot and killed two illegal immigrants. A third immigrant was shot and killed recently by a security guard in Rock Springs, Texas, apparently after a foiled robbery attempt.
Rhetoric reaches a peak
The rhetoric reached a peak last month, when a Border Patrol agent in Brownsville, Texas, shot and killed an immigrant, apparently in self-defense. Within days, a Mexican activist announced a $10,000 bounty to anyone who killed a Border Patrol agent. (The activist has rescinded his offer, and even denied offering it.)
"Unfortunately, violence along the border is a part of the job," says Mike Nicley, deputy chief of the Border Patrol in Washington. "If Border Patrol agents [come into contact with] more migrants, there are going to be more violent encounters."
Certainly, statistics show a rise in violence during the largest buildup of Border Patrol forces in the federal agency's 76-year history. In the past six years, the total number of agents on the ground has more than doubled, from 4,295 to 8,694. Similarly, the number of assaults by immigrants - from rock throwing to shootings - rose from 123 to 345 between 1994 and 1999. The violent pattern continued during the first quarter of 2000, with 74 assaults.
Immigrants are more likely to die from drowning or car crashes than from an encounter with a Border Patrol agent. In 1999, for instance, only 9 of 230 deaths were determined to be homicides, none at the hands of law-enforcement agents. But this year's overall death toll on the border is already ahead of last year's pace.
"We have seen an increase in deaths, and we're quite concerned with that because we're going into the hottest months of the year," says Nicole Chulick, spokeswoman for the US Border Patrol in Washington.
The case of three immigrants attempting to cross the border at Brownsville last week is typical of how a border crossing can turn fatal even without violence. Two Border Patrol agents spotted the trio, who fled into the river. One man lost his footing and began to struggle to stay afloat. As another immigrant, who tried to rescue the man, began to struggle as well, Border Patrol and Mexican officers shifted into rescue mode, throwing lifelines to the immigrants. Both drowned.
The scene, captured by a Mexican TV crew, was broadcast repeatedly on the news.
"The way it's been portrayed is that this is the jack-booted Border Patrol exerting its will on the people, and that's total hokum," says Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington. "If there's anyone out there helping save people, it's the Border Patrol."
But for critics, the US policy of stepping up security on the border has had side effects - the deaths of immigrants at the hands of citizens. "There's been a fueling of anti-immigrant sentiment," says Joe Berra, attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund in San Antonio. "The enhanced use of force to protect the border ... all of that in some ways may have fed the imaginations of people who might see this as some kind of invasion."
For Mr. Mossman, though, patrolling often means protecting as much as pursuing. Along the muddy farm roads of Rio Grande City, he can count dozens of times he has switched to "rescue mode" to save a migrant's life. And with more migrants moving his way to avoid the better-patrolled stations in McAllen and Brownsville, he knows he's got a busy summer ahead.
With a total of 51 agents, seven of them on patrol, the Rio Grande City station has seen a huge increase in both immigrants and narcotics. Two years ago, agents here were catching 400 to 500 immigrants a month. Now, agents catch about 1,500 immigrants each month.
Narcotics smuggling, always big in isolated Starr County, has increased to the point where the Border Patrol doesn't bother contacting the media if agents apprehend anything less than 1,000 pounds.
On this rainy day, however, there's not a lot of action to keep Mossman busy. His greatest task is not getting stuck in the mud. "It's embarrassing when they have to come pull you out," he chuckles.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society