Incident near Arivaca involved copter
ARIVACA R.D. Ayers remembers hearing the heavy whirl and chop of helicopter blades cutting through the sky above the Tres Bellotas Ranch, a sprawling swath of oak trees and barberry brush right on the U.S.-Mexican border.
Even from inside the ranch house, Ayers could tell it must be a big helicopter. He headed outside, thinking it might be U.S. customs, maybe a drug bust.
Instead, Ayers walked right into a group of armed, masked men speaking Spanish and dressed like agents from the Federal Investigative Agency, Mexico's FBI.
The encounter on U.S. soil would be investigated by the FBI, U.S. Border Patrol and Mexican authorities, one of the latest in a long list of suspected incursions from Mexico into U.S. border states.
After long downplaying the number of incursions along the Southwestern border, top Border Patrol officials now acknowledge such incidents are all too common. Over the past decade, the Department of Homeland Security has reported 231 incursions along the border, including 63 in Arizona. Homeland Security defines an incursion as an unauthorized crossing by Mexican military or police, or suspected drug or people smugglers dressed in uniforms.
Incursions gained international attention after the Sheriff's Office in Hudspeth County, Texas, reported on Jan. 23 that men dressed as members of the Mexican military provided cover for drug runners near the Rio Grande.
At a news conference Jan. 26, Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar said that although the number has decreased in recent years, incursions are "a tremendous problem that needs to be addressed."
Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl called for an investigation into the Texas incident and others along the border, asking Homeland Security how it handles incursions. Kyl intends to hold hearings on incursions starting March 1 with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
The growing controversy led to angry denials from officials at the top levels of the Mexican government and strained relations between Washington and Mexico City.
U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza said the Texas incident is part of increased drug violence along the border that "highlights the inability of the Mexican government to police its own communities south of the border."
Mexico, meanwhile, says drug smugglers often wear military fatigues to disguise themselves.
On The Border
Ayers lives in Arivaca, a small southern Arizona town about 11 miles north of the Arizona-Mexico border. A former EMT, Ayers, 49, is now a backhoe operator who dabbles in the local community theater. He says that after his encounter, the FBI and Border Patrol conducted a brief interview, but that he has heard nothing else about his story.
Ayers gives this account: On the morning of April 22, he rode his ATV down from Arivaca to the Tres Bellotas Ranch. The ranch is owned by the local veterinarian, Lyle Robinson, who was taking care of Ayers' dog.
The veterinarian had to head into town for a few hours for a clinic but left Ayers there.
At 11:30 a.m., Ayers heard the helicopter. From his days as an EMT, he thought it sounded like a pretty big helicopter, unusual out this way. He headed out to see. Outside, he looked up and saw a big black Huey helicopter circle and touch down. He also saw a Tucson Fuel Co. truck had just arrived to fill up the Robinsons' tanks.
"That helicopter, I mean, it didn't even look like it was 40 feet over that truck," he said.
Ayers, who speaks limited Spanish, said he stood between the truck and the helicopter.
"When I approached them, I saw on their sleeves it said, 'Mexico.' There were five of them. They were fully clad, with masks over their faces. They had helmets on and body armor and were all carrying rifles," he said. "I told them they were in the United States and they had no business here and to go back home."
Ayers said the men held him at gunpoint as the leader kept asking about the truck and finally ordered everyone back into the helicopter and flew away.
Ayers said the men's uniforms said "AFI" on the back in big letters, but he thought they could also be drug smugglers.
"I think they were interested in the tanker," he said. "I believe they were going to take the truck across the border, dump the fuel. Shoot, you could put 20,000 pounds of marijuana in there or 20,000 pounds of cocaine."
The Federal Investigative Agency, or AFI, was created by President Vicente Fox's government to investigate drug smuggling and other federal crimes. During raids, AFI agents usually wear paramilitary uniforms, carry heavy weapons and wear masks so that drug traffickers cannot identify them.
The agency has five Huey helicopters based in Sonora state, according to a 2005 U.S. State Department report. All were donated by the U.S. government.
It is unclear what the agents may have been doing along the border on April 22, but news releases from the Mexican Justice Department show AFI was involved in raids in nearby Nogales, Sonora that week.
After the men in the helicopter took off, Ayers tried to call for help with his cellphone but could not get a signal. The Tres Bellotas Ranch has no telephone lines. The tanker driver was able to call authorities from a nearby ranch. Ayers said he waited several hours and then, when no one came, he headed home.
When Ayers got home, there was a message on his machine from an FBI agent. He asked Ayers to call back. When Ayers did, the agent took a report on what he saw at Tres Bellotas.
Gus Soto, a Border Patrol Agent and spokesman, confirmed there was an investigation into the suspected incursion but said there were "conflicting reports" about what happened from the witnesses.
The tanker driver, contacted by The Republic, declined to be interviewed for this story. The FBI declined to comment.
A spokeswoman for the Mexican Justice Department said officials there had no record of the border crossing and could not comment on Ayers' report.
At the Jan. 26 news conference in Nogales, Aguilar said incursions are a "very, very high concern to us; there is no question in our minds that we have a problem."
Although federal agents stressed that they take each report seriously, they were careful to say that some seemed to be unintentional. Aguilar said the incursions have gone both ways, confirming reports that Border Patrol agents had strayed into Mexico.
Back in Arivaca, Ayers is still waiting to hear from the Border Patrol or the FBI agent who interviewed him..
"I'm really shocked that our government would even allow something like this and be so passé about it," Ayers said. "I mean, these guys had loaded weapons, cocked (and) aimed at me on this side of the border.
"My biggest concern in all this, to tell the truth . . . is that our president says we're in the middle of a terrorist war. And our government says they've got some kind of control on (the border). These people can come across so easy it's pathetic."