WASHINGTON — Just before 8:30 a.m. Jan. 26, two figures dressed in camouflage and carrying military assault rifles crossed an international border, making their way on foot through the quiet desert terrain, unaware that they were under the constant watch of authorities in the country they had just entered.
Within minutes a border patrol agent confronted the two men. Weapons were drawn. Asked for identification, the two men provided their names — which didn’t correspond with the names on their uniforms. After a brief, tense standoff, the two men retreated back across the border just as reinforcements were arriving.
No, this isn’t the opening scene to the next season of Homeland, or some harrowing special-forces mission gone wrong in a distant corner of the world.
The armed incursion occurred on United States soil, outside Sasabe, Ariz., just north of the U.S.–Mexico border. Drug dealers and migrants use a large wildlife preserve to the east and the empty desert to the west of Sasabe as trafficking corridors.
Both Mexican and U.S. border agents have crossed over the border in this area, pursuing suspects. But according to officials familiar with the situation, border crossings by members of either military are rare. In a January letter to the head of Customs and Border Protection about the incident, Sen. Tom Coburn asked if the agency has “concerns that some members of the Mexican Military could be providing security and/or intelligence to Drug Trafficking Organizations.” The Sinaloa Cartel, widely considered one of the world’s most powerful drug syndicates, operates along the Sasabe stretch of the border.
“Any time individuals in military uniforms cross a border that’s obviously cause for concern,” the Oklahoma Republican told BuzzFeed Friday. “This incident deserves a close look.”
An internal CBP “Foreign Military Incursion” incident report was provided by a confidential informant to BuzzFeed and verified by Sen. Coburn. It makes for riveting reading.
Around 8:53 a.m. MT, an official monitoring video surveillance “had a visual of two subjects entering the United States approximately 2.5 miles west of the Sasabe Port of Entry.” Border Patrol Agent David Olaya “reported subjects appear to be Mexican Military personnel approximately 50 yards north of the International Border. At 0920 hours, BPA Olaya stated he positively identified the two individuals.”
According to the report, “both parties drew their weapons.” The two men in camouflage had H&K G3 long arms, a type of assault rifle commonly used by the Mexican military.
Olaya said the two men identified themselves as members of the Mexican military’s 80th Battalion. But the names they gave didn’t match the names on their uniforms. Additionally, the men informed Olaya “that they had been pursing [sic] three subjects that were seen in the area.” The incident report does not indicate that the video surveillance system had seen any other individuals in the area.
By this time, according to the incident report, officials at the border patrol were trying to contact Mexican military officials. “At approximately 0926 Supervisory Border Patrol Agent (SBPA) George Serrano … was contacted and apprised of the situation. SBPA Serrano attempted to make contact with the headquarters of SEDENA 45th Military Zone,” which covers the area around Sasabe. “A voice message was left at the office,” the incident report says.
Two minutes later, “both Mexican Military personnel turned southbound after they saw other [Border Patrol] units westbound toward BPA Olaya.” Within seven minutes, the two men had crossed back into Mexico.
Although CBP Acting Watch Commander Eduardo Fuentes was alerted, it does not appear he took much action beyond reviewing the incident report. Additionally an agent with the Border Patrol’s Critical Incident Team — which investigates shootings and other incidents involving agents — “stated they will not be responding to this incident,” according to the report.
Olaya could not be reached for comment, and CBP spokeswoman Jenny Burke did not respond to repeated requests for comment. The Mexican embassy in Washington also did not respond to a request for comment.
Congressional investigators have had no better luck in getting answers from CBP, which has a history of ignoring information requests from lawmakers in both chambers.
For instance, Sen. Robert Menendez has filed multiple requests with CBP for its policies regarding the use of deadly force. Although CBP has conducted a review of the practice, it has yet to provide the New Jersey Democrat or congressional investigators with the policies behind its use of force, particularly against Mexican nationals. Similarly, CBP has been accused of stonewalling congressional investigators and outside watchdog groups over conditions in its detention centers.
In his January letter, Sen. Coburn asked CBP Acting Commissioner Thomas Winkowski a series of questions about the incursion into U.S. territory, including whether top CBP officials were informed of the incursion and whether CBP has verified the two men were in fact military personnel.
Coburn, the ranking minority member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, asked CBP to respond by Feb. 3. He told BuzzFeed this week that he has yet to hear back.