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July 28, 2006, 10:40PMEyes of Texas Guard on the borderTroops keeping watch on remote western stretch of Rio GrandeBy JOHN W. GONZALEZCopyright 2006 Houston ChronicleSIERRA BLANCA - Ten weeks after President Bush ordered the National Guard to the border, Texas troops have established an outpost to watch for illegal crossings in one of the most remote segments of the U.S.-Mexican border. The extra eyes are greatly appreciated by the U.S. Border Patrol, which is braced for increased smuggling activity in the desolate Big Bend region now that security has intensified across the Southwest."Their job here is to help us, to be our eyes and ears and report to the agent who is nearby," said Marfa sector deputy chief patrol agent John Smietana Jr.Standing on a windswept hill overlooking the river about 20 miles southwest of Sierra Blanca, Smietana said the Texas Army National Guard troops now provide 24-hour surveillance along a stretch of the Rio Grande that is so parched it easily can be crossed on foot. Known as entry-identification teams, the soldiers have operated a lightly camouflaged lookout post for about a week.The teams "are not supposed to be covert," Smietana said Thursday. "They're supposed to be out, they're supposed to be seen. They're not trying to hide."Deterrence is important," the patrol official said.Earlier this week in Washington, D.C., Border Patrol chief agent David Aguilar said arrests along the southern border plummeted 45 percent in the 69 days after Bush's May 15 orders, when compared to the previous 69 days.Factors in fewer arrestsAlthough immigrant traffic slows each summer because of lethal conditions in the Southwest, Aguilar said he's convinced the mobilization contributed to the recent decline in arrests. Also affecting the trend, officials said, were stepped-up enforcement by the Border Patrol and state and local agencies, and vigilance of private citizens. Further, some jurisdictions have increased prosecutions to curtail the "catch and release" phenomenon that grants some captured immigrants freedom if they agree to return for removal hearings.All those factors have made the deployment of Guard troops here fairly uneventful so far, troops and patrol agents said. In addition to observing from a hill above Neeley's Crossing, a notorious smuggling route, troops operate trucks mounted with powerful scopes and serve in intelligence analysis and administrative roles.Bush ordered the two-year deployment to bolster the Border Patrol while it awaits completion of training of thousands of new agents. This week, Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau at the Pentagon, said 4,500 Guard members are in place in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, and Bush's mandate to field 6,000 troops will be met next month.In far West Texas, the patrol's support needs are many, said Smietana, whose sector includes 118 Texas counties."We have 510 miles of border. We're the largest Southwest border sector," he said."The uniqueness that we have in the Marfa sector is that most of it is remote and unpopulated. There's a lack of infrastructure on both sides of the border and a lack of services, so you have to be self-contained when you go out," he said.Crash course in cultureThe troops that began arriving several weeks ago have adjusted well, Smietana said. In addition to training at Camp Mabry and Camp Swift, they've been lectured on "the culture of the local area," he said, including the fact that it's not uncommon for ranchers to be armed. Lt. Col. Howard Palmer, a North Texas middle-school administrator who leads the undisclosed number of Guard troops in the Marfa sector, said his team includes field artillery observers and other specialists who are serving as surveillance-team members, scope-truck operators and in other roles."All we do is observe and monitor and report to our friends in the Border Patrol," Palmer said.So far, the troops haven't seen much to report, mainly just livestock and dust devils. But "there's always activity south of the river," Palmer said. "We're watching them, they're watching us watch them."firstname.lastname@example.org
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