Rise in Assaults on Officers Worries Border Patrol

By Stephen Barr
Sunday, February 12, 2006

Assaults against Border Patrol officers appear to be on the increase -- from gunshots fired to rocks thrown.

"Let me tell you, rockings are serious," said Michael Chertoff , secretary of homeland security. "You can get serious injuries when a rock . . . hits a Border Patrol agent."

According to David V. Aguilar , the Border Patrol chief, there were 374 assaults against officers in fiscal 2004 and 778 assaults in fiscal 2005. Since Oct. 1, the start of the fiscal year, there have been 192.

More than 80 of those assaults have been in the San Diego area. Officers also were shot at three days in a row in late January near Laredo, Tex. "Luckily, none of our officers were hit," Aguilar said.

Chertoff and Aguilar talked about the dangers faced by Border Patrol officers as part of a briefing on the president's new budget proposal. The Department of Homeland Security would receive a 6 percent increase in funding under President Bush 's plan, with a substantial part of the extra funds directed toward tightening border security and cracking down on smugglers and cartels.

By and large, the public takes for granted many services provided by the government and often shows scant appreciation for the risks taken by federal employees.

Although television and film highlight the risks to FBI and CIA agents, criminal investigators and diplomats, almost every federal agency has employees who can come into harm's way.

Last year, for example, an advocacy group pointed out that threats, harassment and attacks against National Park Service rangers and U.S. Park Police officers were on the increase. Employees for other Interior Department bureaus have been met with hostility when traveling across public lands to perform research or to enforce environmental regulations.

Border control has become a particularly worrisome issue because "very sophisticated, hardened criminals" use violence to protect their trafficking in people and drugs, Chertoff said.

"As we put more Border Patrol and more technology on the border, we're starting to really hurt them in terms of their profit, which is what it's all about for these criminal organizations," he said. "And that's why we've got to continue to apply this pressure. But we've also got to be prepared to deal very decisively with any violence directed at our Border Patrol agents."

T.J. Bonner , president of the National Border Patrol Council, said his union members are "extremely concerned" about attempted shootings of agents in cars and boats and the throwing of rocks at officers on foot patrol near fences and walls. "It's only a matter of time before some of these incidents turn deadly," he said.

Bonner said senior Border Patrol managers need to find better ways to counter assaults on agents. "Headquarters has not modified their tactics one whit, even though the number of assaults have increased 108 percent," he said. "That should be cause for great alarm."

For fiscal 2007, the president's budget would provide about $317 million for hiring, training and equipping 1,500 new Border Patrol agents and about 500 support personnel. If approved by Congress, the budget would bring the number of agents to nearly 14,000 -- a 42 percent increase since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Chertoff said.

The budget proposal also would permit $100 million in spending for border technology improvements, Chertoff said. Although high-tech efforts to improve border interdictions have a mixed track record, Chertoff said the department hopes to create a system that uses unmanned aerial vehicles, satellite imagery, sensors and computer-programmed cameras to identify and intercept people crossing the border illegally.

In the San Diego area, the budget proposes spending $30 million to buy land, expand fencing and lighting and create patrol roads to improve enforcement in the most urbanized corridor along the border with Mexico.

Criminal cartels will not prevail through violence, Chertoff said. "If they think they're going to back us down or chase us away, the answer to that is no. Our Border Patrol is properly trained. They have rules of engagement. They are entitled to defend themselves. They will defend themselves."

E-mail:barrs@washpost.com


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