Defending the border: Field exercise prepares agents when crowds turn hostile

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Border Patrol maneuvers at Mexico-New Mexico border test coordination between ground, air and tactical units

SUNLAND PARK, New Mexico (Border Report) — A protest near the border wall turns hostile. Demonstrators taunt and hurl rocks at a line of agents keeping them from advancing further into U.S. territory.

The situation threatens to get out of hand. Then the cavalry arrives: agents in riot gear move to the forefront; an officer inside an armored vehicle tells the demonstrators through a loudspeaker to move back and disperse; a squad of armed agents takes up position as a horse unit stands by and an Air and Marine Operations (AMO) helicopter hovers overhead.

Soon a protest leader who gets too close is apprehended. Another who gets hit on the head by a rock thrown by a colleague is rescued and pulled behind the line to get medical attention. The crowd leader gets pelted with rubber bullets and taken into custody. The Border Patrol launches smoke grenades that explode with a menacing bang. The riot and the mounted units move forward and herd the crowd toward a gate that has been opened in the border wall, leading them back to Mexico.

Friday morning’s training in the desert of southern New Mexico offered a rare glimpse of how American border agencies prepare to deal with contingencies that became only too real during the migrant surge of the past 15 months and could pop up again any time.

“Border Patrol always tries how to be best prepared for what may come. That’s why we make this training (part of our) routine,” said Agent Fidel O. Baca, a spokesman for the U.S. Border Patrol. “Whenever you have large crowds and they are hostile a lot of things can happen, so we need to transition from crowd control to rescuing to aprehending. We need to make sure everry team member knows what their role is and they prepare for it.”

Baca said border agents every day face contingencies, from running across drug runners to rescuing migrants in need of aid. The agents usually have the training to handle the situation by themselves. However, a few events have merited a coordinated response.

At the end of November 2018, hundreds of Central American migrants rushed a Tijuana border crossing, frustrated from having waited in Mexico too long. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) turned them back with tear gas and proceeded to shut down the border.

Last July 1, CBP shut down for six hours a port of entry in El Paso, Texas, after a large group of Cubans and Central Americans began to gather at the foot of the Paso del Norte Bridge, threatening to rush the border.

The agency closed the same port of entry for more than four hours just a week ago, when hundreds of women’s rights demonstrators took over the bridge for a protest.

The federal government tasks individual units with particular aspects of border security. AMO keeps an eye on the border from the sky. The Border Tactical Team (BORTAC) are special forces trained in the use of non-lethal force such as tear gas, smoke grenades and guns that fire beanbags and pepper pellets. BORSTAR is a search and rescue team. Other units include the horse patrol and the Mobile Response Team.

The section of border wall in the southern New Mexico desert where Friday’s Border Patrol field exercise took place. (photo by Julian Resendiz)

Each unit usually trains separately. Field exercises such as Friday’s in Southern New Mexico allow supervisors to weigh the units’ response and cohesion. “We just have to make sure all of our teams are in sync, that the coordination is there,” Baca said.

The agent and other Border Patrol supervisors assured reporters the exercises aren’t in response to any imminent threat. Baca said a similar exercise took place last January.

The height of the migrant surge took place in May of last year, with groups of up to 1,000 migrants surrendering to the Border Patrol at a time. Baca said the daily apprehension average in the El Paso Sector, which includes southern New Mexico, has gone down to 175 from May’s high of 1,500. Similar declines are being felt across the U.S.-Mexico border.

Analysts attribute the drop all across the border to Mexico’s acquiescence to President Trump’s demand to stop Central American caravans at the border with Guatemala. Some of those analysts have said the migrant surge could resume if ever Mexico stops cooperating.

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