Texas border: U.S. CBP helicopter forced down under fire from Mexico

Texas border: U.S. CBP helicopter forced down under fire from Mexico
A CBP Airbus AS-350 patrols in a file photo. (Image: Breitbart, Bob Price)

Although we can imagine that major live-fire incidents will remain sporadic, at least for now, things are heating up at the border.  This latest incident is an escalation: a case of a clearly marked Customs and Border Protection (CBP) helicopter being fired on, from the Mexican side of the border, apparently with the intent to disable it.

Breitbart TX’s Brandon Darby has the story.  He has verified through follow-up with officials that the helicopter (or “helo,” as the military calls it) was struck by three rounds from the shooter(s), at least one of which reportedly hit the engine.

The event occurred around 5:00 PM CDT on Friday, 5 June, in the vicinity of Laredo, Texas, which lies across the Rio Grande from Nuevo Laredo, headquarters of the Zetas cartel.  The cartel presumably launched the attack.

In renewing Operation Strong Safety earlier this year – the Texas state police and Guard operation on the border with Mexico – Governor Greg Abbott shifted the focus of the operation westward from its 2014 area to Laredo.  I-35 runs through Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, and is a major thru-way for narcotics trafficking.

Map 1. The Laredo/Nuevo Laredo area where the CBP helo was forced down on Friday. (Google map; author annotation)
Map 1. The Laredo/Nuevo Laredo area where the CBP helo was forced down on Friday. (Google map; author annotation)

Darby outlines the event:

The helicopter was in U.S. airspace and participating in the interdiction of a narcotics load coming from Mexico into the United States.

A federal agent who spoke with Breitbart Texas on the condition of anonymity said, “U.S. Border Patrol agents were attempting to intercept a drug load. A law enforcement chopper was assisting Border Patrol agents. The chopper received gunfire from the Mexican side of the border. The chopper had to do an emergency landing due to the gunfire.”

And the damage:

Another source close to the matter told Breitbart Texas that “at least five shots were fired from Mexico and three hit the CBP chopper. The source claimed that two shots hit the cabin and one hit the engine. Another source close to the matter told Breitbart Texas that two shots hit the engine and one hit the cabin. Both sources cited in this paragraph claimed that an agent in the cabin was not wearing a vest and had it stashed on the floor and that the vest being on the floor ultimately saved the agent’s life. Agents explained that their vests are often placed below them in choppers because any rounds would come from below.

(I heard on Fox at noon PDT that the damage was reportedly to a rotor blade and “the side of the aircraft.”)

The helicopter was obviously very close to the border, if it could be hit by what was presumably small-arms fire.  Darby indicates that it was hovering over a housing area called La Bota Ranch (see map 2), virtually all of which falls within a mile of the border along the Rio Grande.  The closest edge of the neighborhood is no more than 300 feet from the border.

Darby’s post shows a file image of an Airbus AS-350, CBP’s workhorse for patrolling and surveillance.  No one has reported what kind of helo was involved, but if the operation was expected to be fairly routine, it was probably an AS-350.  (CBP also has Hueys and Black Hawks.)

According to the FBI:

USCBP, FBI, Texas Rangers, Homeland Security Investigations and Laredo Police Department responded to the scene.

I bet they did.  This force-down, under fire, isn’t a one-off.  It represents a step in a progressive escalation, follows incidents in the last year in which fire was expended from one side of the border or the other.

Map 2.  A closer view of La Bota Ranch, the border neighborhood of Laredo where the CBP helo was operating when it was forced down under fire.  The range circle shows a 1-mile radius from the border.  (Google map/satellite imagery; author annotation)
Map 2. A closer view of La Bota Ranch, the border neighborhood of Laredo where the CBP helo was operating when it was forced down under fire. The range circle shows a 1-mile radius from the border. (Google map/satellite imagery; author annotation)

Earlier incidents

Some were at sea.  In January 2015, a CBP Black Hawk fired on a “panga” boat engaged in narcotics trafficking near Catalina Island, off the southern California coast, causing it to stop.  The three men in the boat were taken into custody by the crew of a CBP patrol craft.  (Coast Guard surveillance assisted in this takedown.)

The January incident was followed by one in February near Miami, in which a CBP patrol craft fired warning and disabling shots to get a suspect vessel coming from the Bahamas to stop.

Probably more alarming to average Americans, in June 2014, a Mexican law enforcement helo crossed into U.S. air space in Arizona and fired on CBP agents, near the San Miguel Gate border crossing southwest of Tucson.  Judicial Watch FOIA’d information on this incident and posted it here.  The Mexican government eventually acknowledged the event and apologized for it.  JW describes it:

[US Border Patrol] Agents from the Tucson Sector Foreign Operations Branch were parked approximately 100 yards north of the Border on the U.S. Side when they observed a Mexican LEA helicopter cross north into the U.S. for approximately 100 yards. The agents then heard and observed two rounds being shot from the helicopter which landed approximately 15 yards to the side of one of the unmarked Border Patrol Vehicles (FOB) they were driving. Also, there were two marked vehicles at the scene next to the unmarked as well.

And, as JW notes, Mexican military and law enforcement incursions on U.S. territory have been much more frequent than Americans may realize.

DHS records show that Mexican military incursions occur quite often and go unpunished by the U.S. For instance, the DHS documents reveal 226 incursions by Mexican government personnel into the U.S. between 1996 and 2005. … The problem has only gotten worse over the years, according to the records obtained in the course of JW’s ongoing investigations. …

According to information obtained by California Congressman Duncan Hunter from the Department of Homeland Security, there have been 300 documented incursions by Mexican military and law enforcement authorities onto U.S. soil since 2004. Hunter reported on June 17, 2014, that, according to the DHS:

  • There have been a total of 300 documented incursions since January 1, 2004;
  • Of the 300 documented incidents, there were 152 incidents involving armed subjects (totaling approximately 525 subjects) …

JW also highlights an incident from January 2014 in which Mexican soldiers crossed into U.S. territory near Sasabe, Arizona, and held CBP agents at gunpoint in a 35-minute standoff.  Official responses from both governments on this incident were vague and reassuring – which doesn’t assuage legitimate doubts about who the Mexicans really were.  There are problems in several Mexican states with cartel penetration of law enforcement and the military.  There are almost certainly instances in which it’s easier for the Mexican government to just take responsibility and apologize than to really try to get to the bottom of it.

And that doesn’t bode well for a slowly escalating situation.  The bolder the cartels get, the more it will matter if they are able to fake their way into firing range by pretending to be law enforcement or military.  Two priority things to think about with this latest event:

1.  It’s awfully easy for people with weapons to get across our border.  Firing into the U.S. from across the border isn’t much of a challenge either.  We already know about one area, near El Paso, where Islamic State has been operating just over our border.  There are probably – not possibly, probably – more that we don’t know about.

2.  CBP and other agencies involved in border security will have to react to the 5 June event.  It’s not something they can just continue forward from, on a business-as-usual course.  There are basically two options: defensive and offensive.

Impact

A defensive option – the one the Obama administration will probably choose – would be to set new limits on CBP patrols in order to minimize danger to them.  The most obvious limit would be keeping them far enough from the border, and/or increasing their required altitude, to be out of small-arms range.  That will make them less effective, and of course will do nothing to prevent shooters from just coming across the border and firing at them from U.S. territory.

I imagine the Obama administration’s priority is to prevent a situation in which a U.S. helo has to open fire on Mexican shooters and/or military vehicles (airborne or land-runners) in order to get out of a situation alive.  The Obama administration’s priority is not deterrence, it’s the avoidance of incident.  I base that assessment on the administration’s posture in Iraq and Afghanistan today, as well as its very selective and unaggressive enforcement posture at the border.

Team Obama is likely to tell Homeland Security and CBP to “avoid incidents,” while changing little or nothing about the resources they have available – and then leave it to the agency brass to decide what that has to translate to in terms of operating profile.  When you do it that way, you can claim that pulling back for safety is what the CBP wants to do.

One consideration is that the pullback would leave incrementally more territory subject to the whim of cartel thugs.  And it would be U.S. territory.

Another consideration is that Team Obama could decide – especially if there is another such incident – to deploy better-armed National Guard helos for the patrol mission right along the border.  That would incrementally militarize the federal administration of border security, although of course such military support has been deployed before in the last 25 years.  The move itself wouldn’t be unprecedented.

But: since the inauguration of the “War on Drugs,” the use of military assets at the border has been related to the military’s more advanced surveillance capabilities – not to a need to be better armed because of near-combat conditions along the border.  And bringing the “better armed” aspect into it raises the question of what the Guard helos’ rules of engagement would be.  We can’t discount the possibility that they would be deployed solely to look more intimidating.

Texas won’t take any of this lying down.  Certainly, with all the agencies that responded to Friday’s incident, a sensible person would think we have whatever we need to put a stop to this nonsense.  Texans are pretty sensible that way.

But if it comes down to shooting back at attackers, especially if fire is coming from across the border, the U.S. federal government will still hold the hammer.  Greg Abbott will have no intention of starting or escalating an international incident.  As long as “situation normal” holds, the systematic response of the United States to incidents like this one will be in the hands of the Obama administration. We can probably expect the actual response to be defensive and passive, whatever verbiage may dress it up.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.


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