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Cross-border police incursions raise fears of confrontation

December 22, 1997

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) _ The chase lasted only a block and a half. But when Border Patrol agent Sean Gijanto pursued a border-crosser, he stepped over an international boundary and into a controversy that cost him his job.

Early last month, Gijanto _ his revolver drawn _ chased his man into the Mexican city of Agua Prieta. Then, three times in six days, Mexican law enforcement officials pursuing suspects crossed illegally into Arizona east of Douglas.

The rash of cross-border incursions has officials of both nations worried that, one day, such an incident will lead to violence.

``There might be some serious episode here in which some Border Patrol agent or national guardsman or whoever might shoot someone from the other side and cause an international crisis,″ said Edward Williams, a University of Arizona political scientist and border specialist.

Rob Daniels, a spokesman for the U.S. Border Patrol, said the cross-border incursions ``are very potentially dangerous, if in fact the individual making the incursion is totally unaware of where he or she is and they believe that they are on their own soil and not foreign soil.″

Ron Sanders, the Border Patrol chief for most of the Arizona-Mexico border, said most such crossings are intentional.

``They know darn well where that border is,″ Sanders said. ``We’re not talking about situations 20 to 30 miles out in the desert. These are usually situations within a rock’s throw of the port of entry.″

``There’s no doubt in my mind that our officer knew where he was,″ he said of Gijanto. ``And the same thing holds true in my belief for the Mexican officers.″

On March 9, a half-dozen heavily armed, uniformed Mexican soldiers who had crossed the border shined flashlights onto Border Patrol agents who were hiding in brush east of Douglas, just north of the border, waiting for illegal immigrants or drug traffickers.

The startled soldiers, confused and disoriented, said they were looking for drug traffickers and returned to Mexico.

Such situations could reach the shooting stage, ``and that’s obviously potential law enforcement vs. law enforcement,″ Daniels said.

``Any kind of incident might provoke situations of danger,″ said Roberto Rodriguez Hernandez, Mexican consul in Nogales, Ariz.

In Washington, Border Patrol spokesman Bill Strassburger said incursions are not a common occurrence, but acknowledged that the patrol does not keep statistics. There is no policy for firing agents who cross improperly, he added.

Sanders fired Gijanto; he also released another probationary agent in April who mistakenly drove a patrol van about 15 feet into Mexico while trying to release aliens being deported, including a woman with a bad leg.

Such episodes violate laws against taking weapons and ammunition into another country without approval and against entering except through a port of entry, Sanders said. There also is a potential liability issue if an officer tries to make an arrest in the other country, he said.

The answer is cooperation, officials said. ``The importance of law enforcement working together on both sides of the border to get the so-called bad guy is so important,″ Daniels said.

Sanders and other American officials meet at least bimonthly with Rodriguez Hernandez and Mexico’s other consular officials in Arizona to establish closer ties.

Potentially serious problems have been defused by good relations between the Border Patrol and Mexico’s Grupo Beta, Daniels and Rodriguez Hernandez said.

The plainclothes, armed Mexican agents patrol the border in Agua Prieta, Naco and Nogales, Sonora, looking for criminals who prey on Mexican citizens as well as undocumented migrants headed north.

Daniels said the patrol and Grupo Beta are working on an arrangement that would let either side ask the other for help in chasing criminal suspects.

More concrete _ and steel _ solutions are in the works as well.

A two-mile tubular steel fence should be completed in February at Douglas, with another three-mile section made from surplus steel landing mats to be added later in 1998.

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