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South Texas, 1997: Green Berets attacked by Mexican narco-mercenaries

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October 7, 2011 | 6,130 views | 30 comments

Editor’s note: The following is a response to “Re-Declaration of Independence -- Stopping the Mexican drug cartels,” by Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, posted on this website and the recent report, “Texas Border Security: A Strategic Military Assessment,” written by two military experts for use by the Texas Department of Agriculture. The author of the article below served 21 years active duty in U.S. Army Special Forces, with eight more in reserves. He was a counterinsurgency advisor in El Salvador and served elsewhere in Latin America on counternarcotics missions. He retired from the Army after a post-9/11 tour in Afghanistan. The writer resides in the San Antonio area.

The Texas Department of Agriculture, along with the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), took the highly unusual step of commissioning a military-style “assessment of the impact of illegal activity along the Texas-Mexico border on rural landowners and the agriculture industry.” Two retired Army generals turned national-security consultants, Barry McCaffrey and Robert Scales, wrote the resulting 182-page report, released last month. (Read the report online at

I read this report with interest. The out-of-control violence of the Mexican drug cartels is -- make no mistake -- spilling over the southwest border like a growing flood. It forces the United States (outside Washington, D.C., anyway) to acknowledge that we are in a third war in addition to those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, the report notes that Texas DPS officials have “acceded to the fact that much of their effort was derived from experience in recent [military] campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The Mexico apologists in the news media and certain special-interest organizations can be expected to play the ethnicity (“race”) card and try to shift all blame onto the United States itself. It is true the United States’ insatiable appetite for drugs has a great deal to do with the proliferation of narco-cartels and narco-terrorism; however, Mexico’s endemic corruption and violence also play a part. Mexico has fostered the flow of illegal aliens into the United States as a safety valve to prevent violent revolution. Further, Mexico generates false national pride and touts its sovereignty whenever the United States makes a concerted effort to enforce immigration laws. Mexico, however, never considers that it violates U.S. sovereignty with its fostering of illegal immigration. As if the nearly nonstop trespass of bands of illegal aliens hiking across their land hasn’t been bad enough, nowadays the extreme threat of cross-border violence forces some South Texas landowners -- farmers and ranchers -- to consider evacuation to safety with their families.

Beyond the McCaffrey-Scales report, open sources have mentioned over the decades that U.S. military personnel have been active participants in operations against narco-traffickers in Latin America. Often as not, these operations have involved counter-insurgency and counter-terrorist doctrine, particularly since insurgent and terrorist organizations began using narco-residuals since the 1970s. By the 1980s, traffickers were well established in Mexico and moving their drugs and human chattel across the U.S. border with near impunity. Concerns grew over the movement of drugs, human trafficking, increased gang activity (such as in San Antonio), and the infiltration of known or suspected terrorists as well as violent criminals into the United States. With an under-strength U.S. Border Patrol and over-taxed Customs Service, as well as scant local law-enforcement resources, Washington decided to use the U.S. military, both active and reserve components, along the U.S.-Mexico border in support of civilian law enforcement. The military assets employed were limited to intelligence, aviation, and special-operations units, with restrictions placed on their roles. In part, the restrictions were put in place to avoid negative publicity and to curtail violations of the Posse Comitatus Act.

During the summer of 1997, elements of the 20th Special Forces Group (National Guard) were sent to support Joint Task Force-6, headquartered at Fort Bliss, Texas, near El Paso. JTF-6 was a combined organization consisting in part of representatives the U.S. military and local, state, and federal law-enforcement agencies. Ground units from the U.S. military, specifically Special Forces, were tasked with conducting surveillance operations in several sectors along or near the border, mostly in proximity to known or suspected routes used by narco- and human traffickers. These surveillance elements were under severe restrictions, especially with regard to “rules of engagement” and detention. Their mission was to report rather be confrontational. (It should be noted that although it was a National Guard unit, most of these 20th Special Forces Group personnel were prior active-duty SF solders.) Meanwhile, other 20th SF Group elements were tasked with supporting counter-drug operations in South America. It was a good “peacetime” utilization of our strategic reserve-component assets. This writer provided much of the pre-deployment, open-source information to assist the designated team in mission preparation for the Texas border. I also conducted one of several post-mission debriefings of this group’s Special Forces Operational Detachment-A (SFODA, also known as an “A-Team”) afterward.

The team members were enthusiastic about their mission. This particular A-Team had plenty of prior-service experience, good training, and -- in line with overall mission readiness -- spoke Spanish. The team was tasked to pull surveillance in Texas along a suspected corridor used to traffic drugs and illegal aliens from Mexico. The area lay along the western Rio Grande Valley, but the team was not positioned directly on the border. Instead of deploying the 12-man A-Team as a cohesive element, it was split into two six-man teams. The men carried what is called a “basic load” of ammunition for their M16 rifles and sidearm pistols, but had no fragmentation hand grenades, Claymore mines, or machine guns. They were limited to engaging hostile elements only if directly threatened, or to save fellow Americans. The Border Patrol deposited the two split-teams into their mission area via vehicles. The SF troops established “hide sites” and commenced to observe the terrain. Early into the operation, several armed parties were observed entering the operational area; the SF observers radioed appropriate reports to JTF-6. An estimated 50 individuals were observed -- several miles inside Texas -- all armed with AK-series and some Israeli-made Galil assault rifles. (Both are common weapons in Mexico and throughout Latin America.) The Special Forces soldiers agreed these Mexican gunmen were conducting what amounted to a reconnaissance patrol.

In no time, the Special Forces soldiers came under heavy gunfire, on U.S. soil.

The teams requested permission to return fire, which was denied. Then they requested an immediate extraction, which was also denied. Instead, they were told to await extraction by the Border Patrol. The SF troops remained behind cover, under small-arms fire at a range of perhaps 100 yards. When the volume of fire would die down, the U.S. troops were sniped. Fortunately, no one was killed or wounded. It took Border Patrol elements nearly four hours to arrive and extract the teams by vehicles. By then, the dozens of Mexican combatants -- drug-gang mercenaries -- had hiked back toward the border.

The incident left a bitter taste in the mouths of these SF troops. When the team’s parent company in the 20th SF Group found out what had occurred, there was more anger and frustration. The JTF-6 quickly presented non-disclosure statements to the SF team members and insisted they sign them. Eventually, most of the parent SF company’s personnel were forced to sign the statements, since word had spread like wildfire about the incident. To my knowledge, this incident never was reported in the news media. The non-disclosure statements expired five years later, in 2002. By then, though, Sept. 11 had occurred and the 20th Special Forces Group was deployed to Afghanistan following the active-duty SF units. Some bad feelings remained, however, for those individuals involved in the 1997 incident. According to some of those on the ground in Texas, the Mexicans’ gunfire was more intense than most of the hostile acts they saw in Afghanistan. Several of the 20th SF Group team members, when not serving in the National Guard, were law- enforcement officers themselves; one was an attorney. All felt betrayed over their treatment by JTF-6 and especially by the Border Patrol.

The 1997 incident highlights the fact the Texas border is a dangerous area where U.S. sovereignty has been violated repeatedly by armed elements. If these Mexican narco-mercenaries were that brazen in 1997 -- 14 years ago -- what might they be willing to do now? To its credit, the Texas Department of Agriculture has tried to answer that question. The McCaffrey-Scales report is a good read. Another good source of information is the monthly magazine Homeland Security Today. Although based in Virginia, it’s no stranger to the border. An online reader perusing the magazine’s “Mexico” archive is warned: One article has a small but gruesome photo provided this year by Mexican officials. It shows a Mexican man who had been kidnapped by a rival gang that literally skinned him alive and then cut his heart out. This level of barbarism once was associated only with al Qaida and African tribe-on-tribe genocide. No longer. It now exists in our neighbor to the south -- and it’s headed this way.

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Your Opinions and Comments

Wilson County  
October 19, 2011 11:05am
Well said Joann and El Zorro. It is comforting to know that at least a few out there actually get it. The rest have no clue and quite frankly, they probably don't want one.

El Zorro Plateado  
Nueces Strip, Texas  
October 19, 2011 10:00am
By now no one should be surprized at anything Cuellar does or says. The comment by Facts to "let them defend themselves" only serves to highlight his ignorance of the situation and of the primary law of the land.... More ›

Joann Juhasz  
Floresville, TX  
October 19, 2011 12:18am
I have had many conversations with volunteer Border Patrol members and they consistently confirm the increased danger and violence that is spilling over into Texas. Just last week I listened to a power point presentation about... More ›

Rock'n chair Rambler  
Over Taxed, TX  
October 18, 2011 3:24pm
"Let them defend their own land." Yeah right. And get themselves sued out of their land by the Southern Poverty Law Center race pimps. A few have tried and a few have lost that battle. "A fence is not... More ›

Facts only please  
October 18, 2011 1:09pm
Rock'n chair Rambler: There you go again spending my money! Let them defend their own land. A fence is not going to stop this problem, nor is spending billions of dollars we don't have. Is this criminal or theorist activity?... More ›

Rock'n chair Rambler  
Over Taxed, TX  
October 18, 2011 10:05am
"According to the Declaration of Independence" The Declaration of Independence is not binding law. Try reading the US Constitution to see what powers and therefore, exclusive responsibilities the Congress has,... More ›

The Marcelina Muse  
Dry Tank, TX  
October 18, 2011 9:21am
Facts, if a voting requirement was common sense you would be sitting all the elections out. People have to be alive to enjoy their rights. Pursuit of happiness cannot happen without a safe and stable environment. Border security... More ›

Facts only please  
October 18, 2011 8:11am
Elaine K: Do you have any facts supporting this activity is related to the drug cartels? It may just be kids doing what kids do.

Facts only please  
October 18, 2011 8:09am
Rock'n chair Rambler: There you go again, wrong facts. According to the Declaration of Independence, the government gets its power from the people and the primary duty of government is to protect the unalienable rights of... More ›

Rock'n chair Rambler  
Over Taxed, TX  
October 18, 2011 7:48am
"This is not a HUGE issue" I wonder how many people have to be murdered for it to be considered a "huge issue"? Bombs going off in malls and train stations in the US will happen. It's not a matter... More ›

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