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Mexican cartel violence prompts calls for bigger National Guard deployment along the border

Mexico's ongoing drug war continues to claim lives and disrupt order in the country.

The most recent came Dec. 14, when Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed in a shootout with a group of bandits devoted to robbing drug smugglers and immigrants. Four suspects were arrested in the killing, and a fifth is the target of an ongoing manhunt.

It was the seventh shooting this year on rancher David Lowell's 32,000-acre property outside Rio Rico, where the jagged Tumacacori Mountains are traversed with south-north smuggling trails snaking out of Mexico. Two years ago, a man working for Lowell found a human head inside a plastic bag on a nearby ridge.

"We never found the body that went with it," said Lowell, 82.

Like many landowners here, Lowell said he would like to see a larger and more muscular military deployment in the region. "I think that if there were a battalion of troops in Arizona and they did unpleasant things to people that were breaking the law, the trouble would stop overnight," he said.

The 1,200 National Guard troops are stationed at strategic points along the 2,000-mile border, including both urban and unfenced remote rural areas. But they are under orders to avoid interacting with civilians on either side, and they do not make apprehensions, said Salinas, who oversees the partnership with the Border Patrol and other DHS agencies in his state.

Instead, the troops stand lookout near trafficking hot spots and report illegal crossings to nearby Border Patrol agents, who make the arrests and narcotics seizures.

Use of force

Salinas said he could not discuss his troops' use-of-force policies, citing security protocols. But the Guardsmen are fully armed, as they would be in any combat environment, he said. "In the event something happens out there, our soldiers and airmen understand the rules of use of force," he said.

That is another point of concern for critics of the U.S. military presence. In 1997, U.S. Marines tasked with similar border-guard duties shot and killed an American high school student near Redford, Tex., who was carrying a .22 rifle as he tended a herd of goats, an incident that prompted a suspension of troop patrols.

"There is a tendency for military to think that they're looking at an enemy, and that's a recipe for disaster," said George Withers, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, a group that tracks U.S. policy in the region.

Between 2006 and 2008, the Bush administration assigned as many as 6,000 Guardsmen to assist Border Patrol agents in a similar capacity and to help with border fence improvements as well as other security enhancements. Withers said the current troop deployment fulfills more of a political need, rather than a practical one.

"We're treating the National Guard as a kind of 'super police,' and it's just wrong," he said. "Police are trained to use minimum force to enforce the laws. The military is trained to use overwhelming lethal force to win wars."

Some Mexican officials have criticized the troop deployment as an unnecessary "militarization" of the border. But Arturo Sarukhan, Mexico's ambassador to the United States, said that sending National Guard troops to the border was "a sovereign decision of the U.S government" and noted that Mexico's military is widely deployed along its border as well.

Still, Sarukhan said he thought "other U.S. agencies are better suited to engage with their Mexican counterparts in confronting transnational organized crime operating on both sides of our border."

Sarukhan said he is also concerned about troops from both countries working in such close proximity, where demarcation lines are not always clear and cross-border communication is often lacking.

"We have our armed forces doing drug interdiction and securing the border on our side, and that could lead to unfortunate mistakes," he said.

In Nogales, activists say the soldiers' presence makes the area appear under siege.

"They say they're here because it's a dangerous area, but we live here," said Gustavo Lozano, a coordinator of the group Fronteras Desiguales, which advocates for migrants and against racial profiling of Latinos in the United States. "I feel less safe with them here," he said.

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