There's no higher-priority call than "officer needs assistance." It may be called something different depending on the region of the country, but we all know what it means: One of our own is in danger and needs help. It doesn't matter what we're doing or where we work, we respond. We roll because we know we depend on each other, and because we're the last line of defense for society. If we lose, all of society loses.
Officers along the Texas-Mexico border truly need help. They face constant danger and almost insurmountable challenges. If these brave officers lose, our entire country will suffer the consequences. This was made abundantly clear Jan. 23 in an area along the border known as Neely's Crossing.
It was the middle of a Monday, and Hudspeth County (Texas) Sheriff's Department deputies had received information regarding a large shipment of drugs. When they spotted three shiny new SUVs filled with large bundles and traveling together, the officers and state troopers gave chase. During the 18-mile pursuit, the SUV caravan turned south toward the Rio Grande, the dividing line between the United States and Mexico. One vehicle escaped by driving across the river; one was captured after it blew a tire. The third got stuck in the river, and at first it looked like law enforcement would capture two out of three of the drug-transport vehicles.
However, heavily armed subjects, many dressed in military uniforms, quickly flanked the officers. According to Hudspeth County Sheriff Arvin West, these subjects stood approximately 200 yards into American territory. Using a military-like Humvee with a mounted machine gun, the subjects tried to free the stranded SUV. When that failed, the subjects unloaded the drugs and set the vehicle afire. Although no shots were fired, West said the cops were seriously outgunned and could do nothing but stand by and watch.
Who were these subjects? At first, a Mexican spokesperson said they were U.S. soldiers dressed in Mexican uniforms to make Mexico look bad. Later, others claimed they must be drug runners disguised as military. Our federal government has been reluctant to take a definitive position. Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, has downplayed this and other incidents. Sheriff West, who has lived in the area all his life, says he knows who is responsible. "No doubt in my mind they were Mexican military," says West. "We've had other contacts with them." As for Secretary Chertoff's comments? The sheriff did not mince words: "Our government and everyone else wants to piss-ant around about this. He [Chertoff] has no clue as to what is going on down here."
Not the First Time
This is not the first incident of this type. About two months before, officers attempted to stop a dump truck loaded with an estimated 10,000 lbs. of marijuana. The truck headed south toward the river and subsequently got stuck. The driver fled on foot into Mexico. After officers recovered approximately 1,800 lbs. of marijuana, heavily armed subjects dressed in Mexican military BDUs showed up and took over the scene, using a large, front-loading tractor to pull the dump truck from the river and over to the Mexican side. According to TJ Bonner, a 27-year veteran of the U.S. Border Patrol (USBP) and the president of the National Border Patrol Council, the officers (including those from the USBP) could only observe as the vehicle and its cargo of contraband were taken away.
The U.S.-Mexico border has posed a challenge for a long time, and according to the many sources I spoke to, incidents like the two listed above have happened before. Unfortunately, those on the front line have not received the support they so urgently need. I asked West to describe, using a scale of one to 10, how dangerous the job his deputies face every day is. "It's a 12," he said without hesitation. "We need some help down here."
His sentiments are echoed by all 16 of the sheriffs responsible for the counties lying along the 1,200-plus miles of the Texas-Mexico border. Their situation has become so desperate they formed the Texas Border Sheriff's Coalition. "Every one of the sheriffs is concerned about the nation's security," says Rick Glancey, the coalition's executive director. "They don't want to be questioned after another major incident like Sept. 11 as to why they let the problem come through their county." Glancey says the sheriffs developed a plan and appealed to the Texas governor for help. "If we thought it was controllable, we wouldn't have said anything," Glancey says.
Although primarily a federal responsibility, Texas Governor Perry understood the gravity of the situation and diverted $6 million dollars to the border counties. The result: Operation Linebacker, a plan to bolster local law enforcement by providing overtime and personnel support. It puts feet on the ground, but officers are getting tired, says West. "I've got 12 deputies to cover 5,000 square miles. I'm pushing my guys beyond the limits," he says. Even my days consist of 12 18 hours."
Farther south along the border, Lt. Juan Gonzalez of the Pharr (Texas) Police Department says his officers are seeing a very serious MS-13 (gang) presence. "Many of them have better firearms and technology than we do," Lt. Gonzalez says. "The officers have to be on high alert every day. There are so many things the drugs, the gangs, the cartels. We try to adjust our tactics to the challenge, but it's very dangerous."
Not Your Problem?
At this point, you might think this problem primarily affects officers along the border and probably doesn't impact the area where you work. Although most visible at the border, this issue affects all of us. "We all bleed the same color blood," says Pharr. "We all want our kids and our communities to be safe. This gang [MS-13] and these drugs are going throughout the country. What the officer in Ohio [or elsewhere] should worry about is these guys are headed their way. Sooner or later, the drugs and gangs we see going through here end up in communities throughout this country. MS-13 is very effective at recruiting, and there's a lot of money involved."
If a dump truck can carry several tons of marijuana across the border, it's not difficult to envision the security risk to our nation. We must change this situation, and we must demand action from our representatives. Just a few days after the Neely's Crossing incident, President Bush delivered his State of the Union address. At one point, he said, "Our nation needs orderly and secure borders. To meet this goal, we must have stronger immigration enforcement and border protection." Later, he added, "These men and women are dedicating their lives, protecting us all, and they deserve our support and our thanks."
I support our President, and I truly hope he meant exactly what he said. Things are out of control, so let's help our fellow officers who walk the border for us. Let your congressional representatives know that officers need help. We all have an obligation to provide assistance. Short of mounting a posse, holding congressional feet to the fire is the best thing we can do. Don't assume someone else will go let's all respond on this one.