Snipers Target Border Agents; Gunmen Said to Aid Smugglers

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Snipers working as "lookouts" for drug traffickers and illegal-alien smugglers are targeting U.S. Border Patrol agents from vantage points across the U.S.-Mexico border.

Within the past week, agents assigned to the Douglas station in Arizona's southeastern corner - one of the nation's busiest illegal-entry points - have been fired at on at least six occasions, according to federal authorities, and although none of the officers was injured, several reported near-misses.

One agent's vehicle was hit twice as he moved to avoid gunfire. Another sniper fired both at an agent and at a surveillance camera, which was hit by four bullets but was not seriously damaged.

Since Oct. 1, agents assigned to the Tucson sector, which includes the border stations at Douglas, Naco and Nogales in the highest alien- and drug-trafficking corridor in the country, have been assaulted 80 times, nine involving shootings. Responsible for a 260-mile section of the Arizona-Mexico border, the Tucson agents are being assaulted at a rate of two every three days in that period, more than doubling last year's total.

"The continuing increase in the number of assaults being directed at our agents is of great concern," said Border Patrol spokesman Andy Adame in Tucson. "We believe the vast majority of these assaults are directly tied to alien and drug smugglers based in Mexico.

"Although the border is more secure today than it was even a year ago, we acknowledge that more agents, equipment and technology are needed immediately to bring control and to reduce the number of violent assaults against our agents," Mr. Adame said.

The rise in assaults comes as the Bush administration reportedly has decided not to hire the 2,000 new Border Patrol agents that were authorized for each of the next five years in the recently passed intelligence-overhaul bill. Most of them would have been assigned to the Tucson sector.

Instead, President Bush is expected to seek an increase of only about 200 agents for the new fiscal year, according to law-enforcement authorities and others.

Passed by Congress and signed into law by Mr. Bush in December, the intelligence-overhaul bill authorizes 10,000 new Border Patrol agents in five years as part of Congress' response to the September 11 attacks and to a report by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, which found deep institutional failings and missed opportunities by U.S. authorities in stopping the al Qaeda terrorists who crashed jetliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who left office this week, and Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson, who leaves March 1, have confirmed separately that Mr. …