"These groups vote in very, very high percentages, and they are very committed and emotionally involved with their issues," Orr said.
He added that if he were working for any of the candidates in the 50th District race, one of the first things he would do would be to tell the candidate to contact North County religious leaders of faith-based groups to ask for a personal endorsement, "and then devise some means to communicate with members."
With a crowded field of 12 candidates ---- and the possibility of more joining the fray in an April special election that is expected to see relatively low voter turnout ---- the religious vote could prove to be even more important than in other races, San Diego-based campaign consultant Tom Shepard said last week.
"The advantage will go to any candidate who can reach out to a particular interest group and secure their votes," Shepard said. "This is a battle to find voters who can deliver 15 or 20 percent of the electorate."
Christian votes helped one
Orr said that one 50th District candidate who successfully wooed religious groups in an earlier election was Howard Kaloogian, who was elected to the state Assembly in 1994, a position he held through 2000.
"When Kaloogian won his Assembly seat, no one saw him coming, but he had established a solid base with faith-based organizations," Orr said.
Kaloogian acknowledged the importance of Christian voters in his victory Wednesday.
"I guess that's true. The groups that supported me back then and I had an interesting coalition, and faith-based groups were one part of it," he said.
A look at Kaloogian's Web site, www.kaloogianforcongress.org, shows that he has already received endorsements from a half-dozen religious leaders.
"I am reaching out to the entire constituency, and the church community is a very important aspect of that," he said. "There are very large churches and a very large church-going population in North County."
One such large organization is Escondido-based Congregations for Civic Action, a coalition of 10 North County churches that have a combined membership of more than 14,000 families, the group's president, Socorro Anderson, said Thursday. The group advocates for greater access to housing, health care and jobs, mostly for low-income families in the region.
As it does in many elections, the group plans to hold candidate forums in the run-up to the 50th District's November election, Anderson said, adding that the group does not endorse any single candidate, instead encouraging its members to make up their own minds.
However, any candidate who can convince Christian voters that he or she will fight on behalf of those families could reap the benefits on the day of the election, Anderson said.
"It can sway the vote one way or the other," Anderson said.
In late November, Cunningham tearfully announced his resignation from Congress after pleading guilty in federal court to having received more than $2.4 million in bribes in exchange for steering tens of millions of dollars in government contracts to two defense contractors.
In the wake of his resignation, a slew of Republicans announced their candidacies for the GOP nomination to replace him. The 50th District covers most of North County and stretches south into parts of San Diego. With 159,000 registered Republicans versus 106,000 registered Democrats, the district seat has long been considered a safe one for the GOP. However, in the wake of the Cunningham scandal, Democrats both locally and nationally have said they believe there has never been a better time for an upset.
In addition to Kaloogian, nine other Republicans have declared their candidacies: state Sen. Bill Morrow, R-Oceanside; former Congressman Brian Bilbray; businessmen Alan Uke and Ken King; former California Highway Patrol Sgt. Jeff Newsome; retired businessman Donald Pando; former Del Mar Mayor Richard Earnest; former NFL player Scott Turner; and the former vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees local 3723, Milton L. Gale.
So far, two Democrats have announced they are in the race: Cardiff School District board member Francine Busby, who ran unsuccessfully as the Democratic nominee against Cunningham in 2004; and former banking executive Chris Young.
Candidates' strategies vary
In interviews last week, several of the candidates or their campaign managers said they recognized the importance of capturing the religious vote in the coming election.
All of them stressed, however, that faith-based groups represent just one segment of the electorate they will be courting. They also noted that they merely respond to requests by congregations to come and speak to them about their values and politics.
Morrow is a staunch conservative who makes no secret of his religious convictions. He has come out strongly against same-sex marriage and abortion, and has said that he supports President Bush's Faith-Based and Community Initiative, a program that seeks to increase government funding to religious organizations to provide social programs.
So for him, Morrow said, it is only natural that Christian voters represent an important segment of the electorate, while noting that he also has the support of Jewish and Muslim groups.
"I am going to gravitate to people who think like me," he said last week. "In 13 years in elected office, I have never turned down an opportunity to praise the Lord, whether in churches or prayer breakfasts."
Morrow's campaign manager said that his job is to allow Morrow to continue to "find groups receptive to his profile."
Justin stressed, however, that religious groups are not the only ones that he targets to try to get Morrow's message out.
"I look at who Bill is and assemble a coalition accordingly," Justin said.
That strategy just makes good campaign sense and it wouldn't serve Morrow's interests to target groups that have no affinity for the senator's message, Justin said. "I am not going to send Morrow to a union hall."
In a phone interview last week, Bilbray said that while he will go to speak at congregations whenever he is invited, he does not have a specific strategy for capturing the religious vote.
"I have not specifically earmarked any specific religious faction in my campaign," Bilbray said last week. "I can just as well meet the people standing in Communion line as I can standing in line at the grocery store."
Similarly, Democrat Busby said she was not focusing her campaign on religious groups.
"I don't have a special plan to meet with people at churches," she said.
Busby's communication director, Brennan Bilberry, said last week that while Busby had visited several religious congregations in the last month, she didn't target those groups any differently than she does other potential voters.
"Church leaders are community leaders and you reach out to them in the exact same way you reach out to a City Council member in Escondido," he said.
Wooing Christian voters
Orr said that it was common for "some candidates to go to two or three churches every Sunday."
"Some do it out of conviction, and there are others who do it out of political opportunism," Orr added.
Some candidates will use every tool available to them to woo Christian voters, Orr said.
And while churches generally do not give official endorsements to specific candidates, there are ways for candidates to accomplish the goal of courting those voters, Orr said.
A candidate can convince a church leader to provide him or her with the addresses and phone numbers of members, or buy mailing lists from brokers that are specifically targeted to groups of people that have strong feelings about hot-button issues such as abortion or gun control, Orr said. Then the candidate can send out direct-mail pieces using those lists.
Another technique is to get the personal endorsement of influential members of a congregation and then use those endorsements in a flier that is distributed in the church parking lot. Or a candidate can arrange to make a public appearance with the leader of a faith-based organization, or make an appearance to shake hands at local churches after Sunday services.
Consultant Shepard said that it was hard to judge how carefully candidates work to capture the Christian votes.
"So much of that stuff happens below the radar screen. There is no way of really knowing those (types of campaigning) happen, unless you show up at every church service," Shepard said.
One election analyst said last week that candidates targeting Christian voters during campaigns is an old practice.
"It's always been there," said Jack Pitney, a Claremont-Mckenna College professor of government and former researcher for the Republican National Committee.
"The difference is, Republicans in recent years have made more use of it (the practice of targeting Christian voters), as we have seen the emergence of the religious right," Pitney said. "For a long time, it was Democrats who made far more use of religious congregations."
He said that in 2004, the Bush campaign made very effective use of direct mailings that targeted congregations.
In 2004, The New York Times reported that the Bush-Cheney campaign had sent a top political operative to "recruit pastors at the annual meeting of the conservative Southern Baptist Convention." The story also said that the campaign asked volunteers to talk up Bush and Cheney at bible study classes and church groups, and to provide the campaign with congregational directories. Political analysts at the time credited the effort to drum up support among Christian congregations as a significant factor in Bush's election success.
Pitney noted that while some church leaders may be hesitant to provide church member directories to candidates, "They are not hard to get.
"If church leaders will not provide them, there may be a friendly member of the congregation who has a directory that he or she can pass along," Pitney said.
As did consultant Shepard, Pitney said that reaching out to religious groups could prove to be an important strategy in the 50th District race.
"It could be useful, especially in a multicandidate field where every candidate is looking to set themselves apart from others," he said.
But churches aren't the only houses of worship to which candidates should be making overtures, said Rabbi Hillel Silverman, of Vista's Congregation B'nai Shalom, which means Children of Peace.
Silverman said Friday that there are about 15-20 synagogues in North County, with thousands of members.
While Jewish voters tend to be of all political persuasions, "it would help" candidates to seek out those congregations and speak of their values and political platforms, Silverman said.
Issues that tend to resonate with many Jewish voters, Silverman said, are such things as privacy, family, education, the environment and fiscal policy. And with the right message, a candidate could capture a significant number of votes, he added.
Speaker’s Stand ... Local BRAC heroes
By Everett Kelley and Ray Van Schoubroek
Special to The Star
Now that the Base Realignment and Closure process is history, we feel it necessary for your readers to know the people responsible for keeping Anniston Army Depot, the largest employer in the 3rd Congressional District, open and growing.
You, the unsung heroes, supported the depot in your prayers, labor and financial support. The mayors of the surrounding cities — with Leon Smith and Chip Howell leading the way — contributed to the effort. State Rep. Steve Hurst and state Sens. Del Marsh and Jim Pruitt were always there for support and guidance.
The Calhoun County Commission, especially Eli Henderson and Pappy Dunn, attended allof the BRAC meetings and provided funds when available.
Our congressman, Mike Rogers, and his staff were amazing in their tireless efforts to protect our installation. Rogers made and kept this endeavor his No. 1 priority, not to mention bringing the most powerful congressmen to Anniston during the BRAC process. U.S. Sens. Rcihard Shelby and Jeff Sessions and their most efficient staffers provided the guidance, support and leadership in this most assuredly political process.
But if we had to name the most valuable players in BRAC 2005, it would be shared by three. MVPs Nathan Hill and Sherri Sumners lived and breathed BRAC and AAD during the entire ordeal. They were the ones who made the sacrifices, got on planes at 5 a.m. and got home at midnight. When we had questions, we called them. They orchestrated all the necessary meetings, both here and in D.C. They kept sanity in an insane process. The 3rd District owes a great deal of thanks to Hill and Sumners.
Everything all of us, great and small, did to protect AAD was expensive. There are many who donated money, too many to mention. But, in our humble opinion, shared by many, the real hero of BRAC 2005 is our governor.
In past BRACs, all our governors have said the right things but failed miserably to follow up on anything. Gov. Bob Riley put his money where his mouth was. He was the first governor to do so! He provided our depot family the funds to fight any attempt to close AAD. He called upon his many friends in D.C. for support and influence. He met with us many times on BRAC-related issues and never once did we leave unfulfilled.
To the many who helped this BRAC to be a good one, we say “thank you.” To Gov. Riley we say, “We could not have done it without you!”
Our depot keeps our troops in harm’s way safe and kills our enemies. And there ain’t no one better at either!
Everett Kelley is president of the American Federation of Government Employees (Local 1945) in Bynum. Ray Van Schoubroek is a consultant with AFGE.
New DoD personnel system sees second delay
By TIM KAUFFMAN
January 27, 2006
Another week, another delay for the Pentagon’s beleaguered National Security Personnel System.
The Pentagon announced Jan. 24 it will delay one month the roll-out of new labor-management rules — from Feb. 1 to March 1. The department said the delay is intended to allow time for Judge Emmet Sullivan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to rule on a legal challenge of the new rules lodged by labor unions.
This comes a week after the Pentagon announced it is delaying the rollout of another portion of its new personnel system. The department announced on Jan. 17 it will deploy its new performance-based pay plan on April 30 instead of in February as scheduled.
Ten unions that represent more than half of the 650,000 Defense employees to be covered by the new personnel rules filed a lawsuit Nov. 7 to stop the Pentagon from changing existing labor-management rules. The unions contend the new rules illegally curb collective bargaining, fail to maintain a fair process for appealing disciplinary actions and were developed without their input, as required by law.
“They met with us 10 times and would give us bulleted papers that said, ‘Pay for performance is good’ — what do you think?” said Mark Roth, general counsel for the American Federation of Government Employees. “No proposals were ever exchanged.”
Union leaders say they believe their case against the Pentagon is even stronger than the lawsuit they won in August against similar workplace changes at the Homeland Security Department. Unlike Homeland Security, Defense was specifically barred by law from throwing out existing labor-management policies under Title 5 of the U.S. Code. Instead, Congress approved deviating from the current rules in two specific ways: bargaining at the national level, instead of having to bargain with each local union; and creating an independent third-party review process toresolve labor-management disputes, instead of taking those disputes to the Federal Labor Relations Authority.
However, Congress also gave the department broad authority to limit the union’s ability to bargain over such workplace issues as reassigning employees or introducing new technology, and to override existing union contracts that don’t comply with NSPS.
Judge Sullivan must decide whether the changes outlined in NSPS adhere with Congress’ intent that employees retain their Title 5 collective bargaining rights and whether the department met its legal obligations to involve unions in the design of the new system.
A spokesman for the Justice Department, which is representing Defense and the Office of Personnel Management in the lawsuit, declined to comment on the lawsuit.
During a meeting Jan. 23 with Federal Times, AFGE officials said the Pentagon and OPM have crafted a system that will strip employees of their basic rights to fair treatment.
“This is like the dream of managers,” Roth said. “They put these mangers in a room and said, ‘What is it you’ve always wanted?’ whether it’s good or not, and this is what they come up with.”
If allowed to proceed, changes at the Defense and Homeland Security departments could open the door to similar reforms at other agencies. The Bush administration last year issued a draft plan to move all federal employees to a performance-based pay system by 2010 and give managers greater authority to bypass collective bargaining procedures.
Roth said he thinks agency leaders have so bungled the reform efforts at Defense and Homeland Security that the administration has lost any chance of winning congressional approval to expand civil service reforms governmentwide.
“If they keep going in the direction that they’re going — which I’m not sure the courts will allow them to do — I really don’t see anything really hitting the workplace in any meaningful way during this administration,” he said.
Full Speed Ahead. Sort of...
Jan. 30, 2006
Contracts and confidence seem to be the main reason Defense is pushing ahead with Pay for Performance training even though the fate of PFP, politically and in the courts, seems to be up for grabs.
The start date for the rollout of the National Security Personnel System, a model other agencies are expected to follow, has been delayed until the end of April. And the number of employees who will go under the PFP system, where performance ratings (and available money) determine pay raises, has been whittled from 65,000 to around 11,000.
Meantime, Uncle Sam continues to make deals with outside contractors to teach civil servants how the revamped civil service system will work. This hasn't gone unnoticed among employees, many of whom are skeptical about how PFP will work, if it will work, and when or if it will ever happen.
As an employee of the Naval Sea Systems Command said on Friday "I had to attend a 4-hour training session on NSPS... NAVSEA has volunteered us to be the first in... and this will be followed by a full-day session. Both are mandatory. This training, I'm told, is by a private contractor."
Whether it is contract or in-house, the fed says,
You gotta wonder how much of this will be a waste if the federal judge squelches the NSPS or delays it, again. I can't help but wonder (about) the price tag for this training not to mention the loss of productivity with 2,400 employees sitting in an dutitorium (sic) for a total of 12 hours each. Seems to me it would be prudent to wait until we hear the ruling before we start the training.
Federal unions, spearheaded by the AFGE, have a good track record in court. They hope to kill or, or more likely, delay the program until the Bush administration loses interest (not likely) or until a new president and Congress take over.
The National Association of Active and Retired Federal Employees is urging its 360,000 members to deluge Congress with e-mails. NARFE's website gives members the names of 91 "lapsed" members of the House and Senate. The lapsed are one-time cosponsors of NARFE-backed bills to repeal the Social Security Windfall-Offset formulas, or who favor Premium Conversion (the pre-tax health premium option) for federal-postal retirees. There are 68 lapsed members on Premuim Conversion, and 23 who haven't reupped for the Windfall-Offset repeal bill.
The average age of the federal workforce has been creeping upward (its now about age 48) thanks to cutbacks and RIFs during the 1990s and curtailed hiring. At one time the government hired tens of thousands of clericals right out of high school. Now the average age of "new" hires is around 31.
As a result, one long-time OPM employee said "seeing young people is so rare that when one is spotted in the halls some people call each other so they can catch a glimpse." It isn't lust or longing, he says, but rather like seeing a goat in a cage with lions.
Judge delays disputed rules for shipyard workers
A controversial new personnel system affecting nearly 5,000 Portsmouth Naval Shipyard workers and roughly 700,000 civilian defense workers elsewhere is on hold at least until March 1.
A federal judge in Washington, D.C., got both sides to agree to the delay Tuesday during a hearing on a lawsuit filed by unions to block the system.
"It’s an extremely important case and it is extremely complex," U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan said during a three-hour hearing.
The unions claim the National Security Personnel System would violate federal law by undercutting the workers’ right to collective bargaining. The Defense Department says it needs the rules, which would make it easier to hire, fire and discipline employees, to fight the war on terror effectively.
The Metal Trades Council is one several affected unions at the shipyard, which is in Kittery, Maine. Council President Paul O’Connor called the delay good news.
"It shows me that there are enough people paying attention that something’s not right here," O’Connor said. "We’ll see what happens."
O’Connor has said previously the new system would empower the Defense Department to make policy changes that would override existing labor contracts.
"We have lost the ability and the right of collective bargaining ... this is just as big to us as BRAC," he said, referring to the nationwide round of base closures that Portsmouth barely survived last year.
Border agents becoming targets of violence along Rio Grande
BY SARA INÉS CALDERÓN
The Brownsville Herald
January 29, 2006 — Border Patrol agents have increasingly become targets of unknown snipers along the banks of the meandering Rio Grande.
Twenty-five assaults on agents were reported in the last four months, a new high for this region, and all signs point to increasing violence along this stretch of the border.
“I think we’re just getting collisions because we’re getting more agents,” said Charles Bowden, an author who has written extensively on border violence and the drug trade.
“Increased vigilance by the Border Patrol is kind of frustrating the traffickers,” Bowden said.
Sneak attacks on agents patrolling coveted drug routes could be the result of that frustration.
On Dec. 30, two Border Patrol boats were shot at from the Mexican side of the river. The vessels were hit, but no agents were injured. Five days later, shots rang out again about a mile and a half from the place of the December attack. Again, no agents were injured, but the vehicle was damaged.
The FBI is investigating the shootings and believes they are connected because the patterns are similar.
Such attacks on federal agents are unusual here, though becoming more frequent, law enforcement officials said. In fiscal year 2004, there were 22 assaults on Border Patrol agents. In 2005, the number more than doubled to 48. Four months into the current fiscal year, 25 assaults have been reported by federal agents — more than half of all of last year.
Brownsville, unlike other border cities, has been spared heavy violence and conflicts between armed agents and cross-border assailants. This border stretch is calm compared to reports of bloodshed in Nuevo Laredo and Ciudad Juárez.
Brownsville is removed from the Monterrey, Mexico-San Antonio thoroughfare, leaving the heaviest border traffic to the north. Violence may be trickling down from the Laredo area because of pressure there, FBI officials said. They warned that the calm may precede a violent storm.
More agents, more assaults
In December 2005, the Department of Homeland Security announced that 1,700 Border Patrol agents would be deployed along the Southwest border. About one-fourth of these, 452 were set to arrive in Texas, including 62 in the Rio Grande Valley by September.
As of March 2005, there were about 1,500 agents working in the nine stations covering 18,584 square miles of the Border Patrol’s Valley sector.
The Border Patrol classifies assaults on agents into five different categories: rock throwing, physical assaults, vehicular assaults, shootings and an “other” category.
Assaulting a federal agent with a deadly weapon could result in 20 years federal time, regardless of whether the agent is injured or killed in the attack, said FBI spokesman in McAllen Jorge Cisneros.
The motivation for assaults on agents can be varied, said Salvador Zamora, national spokesman for the Border Patrol.
“In a lot of these cases, they are acts directly against our agents. In other cases, they are acts to distract us from our enforcement duties,” he said.
Zamora used as an example recent assaults against agents near San Diego, Calif., in which rocks were placed in socks doused with gasoline and set on fire. Some were thrown into the brush to start fires, while others were thrown at agents, causing injury.
He said the potential for an increase in assaults is a consequence of an increase in the number of agents, which is part of the Border Patrol’s pursuit of enforcement along the whole of the 2,000-mile border with Mexico.
“It’s not just a sector operation anymore,” Zamora said. “Really, it is a 2,000-mile border enforcement approach.”
As a result, drug traffickers and smugglers are more desperate than ever, leaving the door open for more violence, he said. The Border Patrol, he added, “will not retreat.”
Narcos and polleros
Officials from Grupo Beta, Mexico’s version of the Border Patrol, suggested human smugglers are responsible for the two recent shootings on Border Patrol agents near Brownsville.
“It’s the polleros (smugglers),” said Raymundo Olivos Montes de Oca, the liaison for the general office of the PGR, or attorney general’s office, in Matamoros. “The people who are always on the edge of the river are the polleros.”
Pollero is the Spanish word for one who herds chickens. It is used to describe human smugglers on the border.
Human trafficking operations have become more violent, mirroring the atmosphere among drug traffickers, or narcos.
For narcos, “Business is easier if there’s no violence,” Bowden said. Violence only brings attention to the operation, he said, and what they want is to do their business clandestinely, without a spotlight.
Traffickers in the border’s most profitable criminal enterprises — human and drug smuggling — could be crossing paths and igniting a battle for precious cargo and routes into the United States.
“There’s always been a nexus between human smuggling and narcotic smuggling,” said Zamora of the Border Patrol.
Basically, if human smugglers want to move their cargo, they have to work with or get permission from the drug smugglers who control routes into this country. It’s an uneasy alliance working against a common enemy.
Agents are in danger, Bowden said, but perhaps not deadly danger; people in the drug world don’t miss.
“Nobody moving pollos (people) and moving drugs is looking for a Border Patrol to assault,” he said. “It is striking, the lack of casualties in the Border Patrol, because it is bad for business to kill one.”
T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, a union for agents representing 11,000 men and women nationwide, including 1,200 in the Valley, said the increase in assaults on agents was a troubling sign that Mexican drug cartels have taken over the human smuggling business.
Cartels used to smuggle people to “shield” their other dealings. The lucrative nature of smuggling people has changed that, Bonner said.
“That’s a lot of profit for those cartels, that’s what I believe is responsible for the increase in violence. They play by a different set of rules.”
Adding to the dangers of encountering human smugglers is the fact that enforcement pressure on both sides of the border has pushed criminal organizations to improvise, looking for new routes, outside of traditional corridors, such as Nuevo Laredo, said Ignacio Corona, a professor of Mexican and Latin American Cultures at Ohio State University.
Reports of Zeta, organized crime members, ex-Mexican military and narco training camps near Ciudad Victoria have been investigated by the FBI, said Cisneros. He said it was yet to be determined if the cartels were training in the area.
The signs of this shift in human smuggling are easy to see, Zamora said. The use of long arms — rifles, shotguns and carbines, as opposed to hand guns — by smugglers used to be an exclusive sign of drug smuggling, he said, but that is no longer the case.
“Now you have a situation when human smugglers are bearing long arms, so things have changed.”
A binational effort
Concern about the sudden increase in violence in the past few months here has prompted both Mexican and U.S. authorities to join forces to investigate, according to authorities on this side of the river.
“It’s an international issue because we believe the subjects here could be from Mexico,” said Cisneros with the FBI. The agency is coordinating with Mexican consuls, state and local officials in Matamoros, the Mexican military and the PGR legal attaché out of San Antonio.
Zamora said his agency has a “strong” Mexican liaison unit that coordinates with a slew of Mexican agencies, from the PGR to the Mexican CIA. There’s always room for improvement, he said.
While U.S. officials are touting international cooperation, PGR officials in Matamoros said they were unaware of the shootings until they read a local Mexican media report. “We don’t know the source of that report,” said Olivos of the PGR in Matamoros.
He said that after learning of the Jan. 4 shooting, his office investigated a ranch en route to Playa Bagdad that was near the reported shooting site. No bullet casings or any other indication of a shooting were found, he said.
“It would be worth it to have contact with the authorities from the United States to continue the investigation,” Olivos said. “We have nothing else but the news report.”
Officials from Grupo Beta also denied reports of violence. No one is really sure what happened on Dec. 30 or Jan. 4, González said.
“As far as I see everything is fine,” said Martín González Rivera, the coordinator for Grupo Beta in Matamoros. “They didn’t even find the shells.”
Border incident raising tensions in U.S., Mexico
BY HUGH DELLIOS AND MICHAEL MARTINEZ
MEXICO CITY - A confrontation between sheriff's deputies and uniformed drug traffickers along the Texas border has intensified concerns about forays into the United States by Mexican soldiers while heightening bilateral tensions over border violence.
U.S. officials are demanding that Mexico fully investigate an incident Monday in which several men wearing military-style uniforms and carrying military-style weapons helped suspected marijuana traffickers escape into Mexico.
Mexican officials deny that real Mexican soldiers were involved. But the incident has refocused attention on reports that Mexican military and police personnel have crossed onto U.S. territory at least 216 times in the past 10 years, along with concerns about how drug dealers may be obtaining Mexican army uniforms.
"It was no doubt that it was Mexican military, because I've seen them and I've dealt with them all my life down here," said Arvin West, sheriff of Texas' Hudspeth County, whose officers filmed Monday's incident using cameras he bought to back up his allegations.
West said his deputies have caught Mexican soldiers crossing the border "to buy Snickers (candy bars)." But he said Monday's clash was among the more serious incidents, in which soldiers helping drug smugglers "are sitting there waiting with their machine guns to make sure (the drugs) get back OK."
The U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Antonio Garza, sent a diplomatic protest to the Mexican government Wednesday, demanding an explanation and questioning Mexico's commitment to combating violence along the border.
Local authorities in Texas and U.S. Border Patrol officials have been even more strident in their criticism, saying the incursions by Mexican soldiers are common and worrisome. They also have condemned federal officials for not taking the matter seriously enough.
In turn, Mexican officials have questioned the motives and timing behind the U.S. complaints. Some believe the incursion reports are being overblown by proponents of a bill in the U.S. Congress to build more border fences to keep out Mexican laborers. The U.S. Senate is scheduled to debate the measure as early as next month.
Michael Chertoff, U.S. Homeland Security secretary, also characterized the reports as "overblown" and "scare tactics" last week. He said a number of incursions were "innocent" mistakes by Mexican soldiers who did not know they crossed the border, which is barely marked in more remote places.
While Mexico's Defense Ministry is investigating Monday's incident, a spokesman for President Vicente Fox asserted that the suspected soldiers were actually traffickers wearing fake uniforms. Foreign Ministry officials said the traffickers' equipment did not match that of local army units.
Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez sent his own diplomatic complaint to Washington on Thursday, rejecting the U.S. ambassador's questioning of Mexico's anti-drug efforts. At a news conference, he suggested that the uniformed smugglers could have been Americans.
Yet for some Mexican analysts, the fact that drug traffickers can operate along the border in Mexican army uniforms, even if fake, raises disturbing questions by itself.
"This is very serious, whether they were military or not, because someone should have detected them," said Jorge Chabat, an expert in border security issues and U.S.-Mexico relations.
Chabat and others noted that the military has been Mexico's primary instrument in combating drug trafficking and that the army has made most of the high-profile arrests of drug kingpins in recent years.
The army is seen as less corrupt and less corruptible than Mexico's civilian law enforcement agencies. But the army's role in the drug war inevitably has made it more vulnerable to being corrupted, and there have been several cases of soldiers being arrested for colluding with drug runners.
Monday's border incident began when Texas authorities tried to stop three SUVs on an interstate highway near El Paso. The vehicles fled toward the border, where people in Mexican army-style uniforms with army-style weapons in an army-style Humvee appeared to be waiting for them on the other side of the Rio Grande.
The state officers and sheriff's deputies had their guns drawn, as did the smugglers, but no shots were fired. More than 1,400 pounds of marijuana was found in one of the vehicles, which blew a tire and was abandoned on the Texas side, while the armed, uniformed men flanked a second vehicle stuck in the river while it was unloaded.
West, the county sheriff, said such incursions occur several times a month, and that he and others have been trying to get federal officials to focus on the problem.
"I'm sick and tired of the federal government calling us liars," said West, a Democrat re-elected last year. "Just about every time we catch a big load (of marijuana), every time we chase them back, (Mexican soldiers) are there.
"They're sitting there with Humvees and state-of-the-art military equipment. We're sitting there with (patrol cars). We're sitting there with limited high-powered rifles and sidearms versus machine guns," West said.
West said at other times his deputies have encountered Mexican soldiers who have crossed into Texas to eat at restaurants, although they usually have left their weapons behind.
Proponents of tighter border measures in the United States have been complaining for several years about Mexican army and police incursions. Only a few of the incidents have resulted in confrontations, but officials say they take the incursions seriously.
The number of incursions peaked at 40 in 2002, according to a U.S. Homeland Security report distributed to news organizations by U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., who is lobbying for more controls on illegal immigration. Since then the number has dropped sharply; nine incidents were reported last year.
Five more incursions took place in the first quarter of this fiscal year, the Los Angeles Times reported Thursday. Citing confidential Homeland Security records, the newspaper said the incidents have included five Tijuana police officers pursuing and shooting at two suspects over the border in 2004 and two men in Mexican army uniforms and carrying rifles in a creek bed north of the border near San Diego in October.
T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, a union that represents 10,500 border agents, responded angrily to federal officials' downplaying of the incidents.
He noted one case in 2002 when a Border Patrol agent reported a Mexican military vehicle inside Arizona. To avoid a problem, the agent tried to drive away but said the Mexican soldiers fired at him, shattering his back window.
In another case in 2000, Border Patrol agents confronted two Mexican army Humvees a mile inside New Mexico. One of the vehicles stopped, but the soldiers in the other fled and fired two shots at the border agents.
Mexican officials said later that the army units had been lost. In other cases, Mexican soldiers said they believed the U.S. agents were actually in Mexican territory, although Bonner still questioned why they would open fire.
FEMA Response Inadequate, Documents Show
By LARA JAKES JORDAN
The Associated Press
Monday, January 30, 2006; 6:56 AM
WASHINGTON -- As Hurricane Katrina victims waited for help in flooded houses or in looted neighborhoods, hundreds of trucks, boats, planes and federal security officers sat unused because FEMA failed to give them missions, newly released documents show.
Additionally, the Federal Emergency Management Agency called off its search and rescue operations in Louisiana three days after the Aug. 29 storm because of security issues, according to an internal FEMA e-mail given to Senate investigators.
The documents, expected to be the focus of a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing Monday, highlight further evidence of FEMA's inadequate response to Katrina.
They also detail breakdowns in carrying out the National Response Plan, which was issued a year ago specifically to coordinate response efforts during disasters.
The Homeland Security Department, which includes FEMA, did not dispute the failures Sunday. Katrina "pushed our capabilities and resources to the limit _ and then some," said spokesman Russ Knocke.
Responding to a questionnaire posed by investigators, Assistant Interior Secretary P. Lynn Scarlett said her agency offered to supply FEMA with 300 dump trucks and other vehicles, 300 boats, 11 aircraft and 400 law enforcement officers to help search and rescue efforts.
"Although the (Interior) Department possesses significant resources that could have improved initial and ongoing response, many of these resources were not effectively incorporated into the federal response for Hurricane Katrina," Scarlett wrote in the response, dated Nov. 7.
Scarlett added: "Although we attempted to provide these assets through the process established by the (response plan), we were unable to efficiently integrate and deploy those resources."
At one point, Scarlett's letter noted, FEMA asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help with search and rescue in New Orleans, St. Bernard Parish and St. Tammany Parish "but never received task assignments."
The agency, part of the Interior Department, apparently went ahead anyway, according to the letter, which said that Fish and Wildlife helped rescue 4,500 people in the first week after Katrina.
Other Interior resources that were offered, but unused, included flat-bottom boats for shallow-water rescues. "Clearly these assets and skills were precisely relevant in the post-Katrina environment," Scarlett wrote.
Knocke, the Homeland Security spokesman, said up to 60,000 federal employees were sent to the Gulf Coast to response to Katrina. However, he said, "experience has shown that FEMA was not equipped with 21st century capabilities, and that is what (Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff) has committed as one of our top priorities going forward."
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who chairs the Senate committee that released the documents before the hearing, called them "the most candid assessment that we've received from any federal agency."
"Here we have another federal department offering skilled personnel and the exact kinds of assets that were so desperately needed in the Gulf region in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and there no response that we can discern from FEMA," Collins said in an interview Sunday. "That is incredible to me."
Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the committee's senior Democrat, said the documents underscore "an outrage on top of an outrage."
Lieberman and Collins both said they also were dismayed by an internal FEMA e-mail, dated Sept. 1, calling a halt to search and rescue task force efforts in Louisiana.
"All assets have ceased operation until National Guard can assist TFs (task forces) with security," said the e-mail, sent from FEMA headquarters.
Knocke said the halt was likely the result of looting, rioting and other security concerns in New Orleans in the days after Katrina hit. He said he did not know whether FEMA suspended its search and rescue missions indefinitely or just temporarily on Sept.1, and that this would be determined in the department's own review of the response.
But Lieberman said the e-mail shows that FEMA "left early," noting that response personnel from the Coast Guard, and other federal, state and local agencies continued looking for storm victims for days after.
"This is shocking and without explanation," he said.
The documents were among 800,000 pages of memos, e-mails, plans and other papers gathered by investigators for the Senate committee, which plans to issue a report of its findings in March.
Lieberman last week accused the White House of hindering the inquiry by barring some staffers from answering investigators' questions.
Presidential counselor Dan Bartlett maintained Sunday that the Bush administration would not give up specific internal documents or information from top advisers that might inhibit the separation of powers in the government.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., told NBC's "Meet the Press" that the federal government will spend "well over $100 billion" to help rebuild the still-reeling Gulf Coast. The government has so far committed about $85 billion, including $67 billion in direct spending approved by Congress.