Frustrated by tighter security on the U.S.-Mexico border, illegal immigrants and drug traffickers are taking it out on U.S. agents, increasingly attacking them with guns, rocks and petrol bombs.
Assaults against Border Patrol officers rose 10 percent to 843 incidents in the year to September 2006 from the same period a year before, officials say. It is also a near three-fold increase from two years previously.
Mexican drug cartels, locked in a turf feud and under pressure from an army crackdown, are lashing out at law enforcement officers in Texas.
“The attacks against us are becoming more brazen. Drug cartels have instructed their people to go down fighting, to do whatever is necessary to get the narcotics through,” said Rick Flores, Webb County sheriff in Laredo, Texas.
He said drug smugglers are increasingly taking pot shots at agents with assault rifles from inside Mexico at night, although no one has been killed.
They are also using riskier routes to bring drugs across the border, leading to clashes with U.S. law enforcement.
Laredo lies across the Rio Grande from Nuevo Laredo, one of the Mexican cities worst hit by a fight between rival drug gangs that killed around 2,000 people last year. The area is a key entry point for cocaine.
In the Yuma sector, which covers a 125-mile (200-km) desert strip in southwest Arizona, attacks on agents rose 60 percent between last Oct. 1 and Dec. 31, official data shows.
Large groups of illegal immigrants regularly pelt Border Patrol agents with softball-size rocks, fireworks and Molotov cocktails, leaving agents with burns, bruises and head wounds.
“Immigrants are frustrated and are lashing out. It has reached the point that we are seeing attacks on an almost daily basis,” said Border Patrol spokesman Lloyd Easterling.
In one assault in 2005, a group of rock-throwing illegal immigrants damaged the rotor of a Border Patrol helicopter and forced it to make an emergency landing.
Life has become more difficult for illegal immigrants and professional people smugglers.
President George W. Bush ordered 6,000 National Guard troops to the border last May in a move the Homeland Security Department says has cut the flow of illegal immigrants crossing north by more than 40 percent.
The U.S. government is also boosting its border-monitoring technology, including trucks with infrared cameras and underground sensors that detect footsteps as well as surveillance drones flying overhead.
Border Patrol agents are wary of using their weapons after two agents were sentenced to up to 12 years in prison in 2006 for shooting a drug smuggler in the buttocks, officials say.
The killing of an illegal immigrant in January by a Border Patrol agent infuriated Mexico, which demanded an inquiry.
“Smugglers are emboldened to attack as agents are hesitant about returning fire,” said Andy Ramirez of the Friends of the Border Patrol, a pressure group for greater border security.
Mexicans are more sensitive about the border since the U.S. Congress voted last year to build a 700-mile (1,100-km) border fence to prevent illegal immigration.
Rights groups and academics say the rising border violence underscores the need for a U.S. guest worker program and more coordinated campaigns between Mexico City and Washington to cut drug consumption and weaken cartels.
“The continued demand for immigrant workers and narcotics in the United States means that stronger border security isn’t the solution. As a stand-alone policy, it will only increase the violence,” said Jose Maria Ramos, a security expert at the Tijuana-based research institute Colegio de la Frontera Norte.