Border Patrol agents in Arizona face increased confrontations

NOGALES, Ariz. -- In the rocky, expansive desert here separating the United States and Mexico, attacks on federal law enforcement officials are on the rise this year. Meanwhile, volunteers from a citizens patrol have flocked to the area to monitor the border.

The Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, which covers all of Arizona except for Yuma, reports that shootings and assaults against its agents are increasing. During the first six months of this fiscal year, sector officials recorded 132 assaults on agents, including 15 shootings. For all of last fiscal year, only 118 assaults were reported.

"It has increased here," said Michael Nicely, the Border Patrol's chief of the Tucson Sector.

Nicely attributed the increased assaults to the Border Patrol's efforts to shut down drug runners and smugglers of illegal immigrants.

"What happens is when we begin to gain operational control of an area, we do see violence go up," he said. "It's one of those things where the smugglers of narcotics and aliens start feeling the frustration, and they start reacting violently. It's something we've seen in other areas of the border."

The confrontations include 15 physical assaults and 22 incidents in which criminals have tried to ram agents with vehicles. Agents have reported 79 incidents of rocks being thrown at them or their vehicles. In some cases, the rock-throwers are kids from poor neighborhoods on the other side of the border.

Nicely said his force is equipped to handle the surge in violent confrontations.

"When assaults go up or there's an area that's more and more dangerous, we don't back away from that area--quite the contrary," he said. "If we've got a smuggling operation in narcotics or aliens that poses a threat to our guys, we intend to lock that down."

Nicely acknowledged that the Border Patrol does not have "operational control" over all of the Arizona-Mexico border, which has the highest rate of illegal immigration in the nation. In response, the Homeland Security Department is pumping an unprecedented level of resources into the area. Last month, DHS officials announced the launch of the second phase of the Arizona Border Control Initiative, which will add 200 Border Patrol agents to the Tucson Sector, bringing the total number in the region to more than 2000.

The ramped-up enforcement was announced just days before citizens descended on parts of the border as part of the Minuteman Project. The all-volunteer effort calls on citizens to peacefully set up observation posts during April and report illegal immigration to the Border Patrol.

The modest observation posts stretch along a 20-mile patch of lowlands across the San Pedro Valley east and west of Naco, Ariz. Some consist of nothing more than one volunteer, a car and a folding chair.

But organizers say a simple presence along the border makes a difference. James Gilchrist, the main Minuteman organizer, said illegal immigration almost has been stopped in the areas where citizens are observing.

"The progress has been impeccable. It's been astounding," he said.

Gilchrist estimated that about 800 volunteers had shown up as of mid-April. He said organizers want to continue after the end of the month. They plan to begin a "white-collar" campaign in California targeting employers who hire illegal immigrants, and then start setting up border observation posts in October in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

"We will achieve change. It's going to take time," Gilchrist told his supporters during a rally on Saturday near Naco. "We're going to have our own bloodless revolution. You might call it a social revolution like they had back in the early '60s. The power of change comes through the power of peace. You will get people who will cooperate with you if you try to achieve change through a peaceful means."

Civil rights activists, however, continue to worry that citizen patrols could result in increased harassment or violence against immigrants.

The Border Patrol has reported reduced illegal immigration activity near the Minuteman posts. But Nicely does not favor efforts such as the Minuteman Project. He said the decreased activity is the result of Border Patrol operations and the presence of Mexican authorities on the other side of the border.

He added that Minuteman volunteers are tripping sensors and distorting markings that agents use to track illegal immigrants or drug smugglers.

"These folks have really blurred the line," he said, "between making a political statement ... and interfering with our operations."

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