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Mexican Drug Gangs Terrorize Texas Ranchers, Senator Hutchison Calls for Greater Military Role


October 1996

On August 7, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) said U.S. military technology should be used to combat Mexican drug gangs that are terrorizing Texas ranchers near the U.S.-Mexico border (Reuters, "Texas Ranchers Threatened by Mexican Drug Gangs," San Francisco Chronicle, August 8, 1996, p. A5; William Branigin, "Drug Gangs Terrorize the Texas Border," Washington Post, September 25, 1996, p. A1).

Hutchison, speaking at a conference on U.S.-Mexico border issues, called for the government to use infrared and X-ray surveillance equipment to put a stop to what she called a "desperate situation." The Senator said she had already asked for more Border Patrol and DEA agents along her state's border with Mexico. "We're really just asking for an all-out war on this cancer in our society," Hutchison said.

DEA officials say 70% of the drugs smuggled into the U.S. come across the U.S.-Mexico border. Texas, with 1,268 miles of border with Mexico, is a major channel of drug smuggling. According to Hutchison, drug gangs are moving illegal drugs through rural areas in Texas because federal officials had increased enforcement in border cities. Ranchers claim that gangs of Mexican drug traffickers bring tons of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and amphetamines across the Rio Grande to the U.S. with impunity. This year, Border Patrol has seized 65,330 pounds of marijuana in the Del Rio sector, nearly double the amount seized last year.

On the cattle ranches that stretch for miles along both sides of the river dividing the U.S. from Mexico, gangs have torn down fences, scattered cattle, commandeered houses and threatened citizens who get in their way. One rancher recounted sitting in a deer-hunting blind recently when a man dressed in camouflage and toting an AK-47 assault rifle emerged from the cane by the river in broad daylight. A column of drug-carrying "mules" with another armed escort followed close behind. Hutchison said the heavily armed gangs are so frightening that Texas ranchers are selling their land, in many cases to buyers fronting for drug gangs who use the ranches to get a foothold in the U.S. "This means that we are now looking at the possibility of open access from our border ranches into the interior of our country," Hutchison said. "It's just not our land anymore, when armies cross it," said the wife of a rancher.

According to officials, Mexican drug cartels hire smugglers who started smuggling by guiding illegal aliens across the border. Many illegal aliens are used as porters to carry the contraband across the river in exchange for their passage into the U.S. "There are now clear indications that the gangs that traffic in human beings also traffic in drugs and weapons," said Donald F. Ferrarone, special agent in charge of the DEA's Houston office.

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) indicated that she might support a permanent military presence at critical border areas. In fact, the military plays a backup role in helping the DEA and Border Patrol with surveillance and communications. But the military is prohibited from apprehending illegal aliens or enforcing U.S. domestic laws. Advocates of a greater military role say military involvement is justified to repel a "foreign invasion." So far, the limited military role has been kept quiet to avoid alarming Mexico and accusations of "militarizing" the border.

In testimony at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in July, one rancher, testifying anonymously for fear of retaliation, said he suspects local officials have been corrupted by the traffickers. But whether corrupt or not, local officials feel outmanned and outgunned. The Border Patrol reported 24 armed encounters and assaults against its agents in its Del Rio sector, a 205-mile stretch of border, during the first eight months of the year compared with eight during the same period last year.