Bandits such as the ones Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was trying to apprehend last week when he was shot and killed have been around for decades but have become more brazen in recent years, law enforcement officials say.
And it has become the Border Patrol's job to police these groups to make sure that chaos doesn't engulf Arizona's stretch of U.S.-Mexico border.
Scant details have been made public about what happened in the Dec. 14 gunbattle northwest of Nogales, but officials have confirmed that Terry and his fellow agents in a specially trained tactical unit known as Bortac were targeting a "rip crew" that robbed and assaulted drug runners and illegal immigrants.
That means Terry, a 40-year-old agent from Michigan, likely died performing the "savior" part of the Border Patrol's "hunter and savior" mission. While the agency's primary objective is stopping illegal immigrants and drug smugglers from making it north, the agency devotes considerable time and resources to rescuing illegal immigrants in distress and keeping armed and increasingly dangerous bandits in check.
"The Border Patrol is out there to prevent people from getting killed," said Anthony Coulson, a recently retired assistant special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Tucson office. "Even if they are partly responsible for putting themselves in this situation, there are people out there that you have an obligation to protect. It's the right thing to do. It's the humanitarian thing to do."
The bandits, also known as bajadores, often prey on men, women and children crossing Arizona's border illegally. They rob, attack and sometimes sexually assault them. More recently, Mexican drug-smuggling organizations have started using bandit crews to police their routes, ensuring that competitors don't use their hard-earned corridors, often stealing the loads.
They operate all along Arizona's international border, but the canyon-filled corridor west of Interstate 19 where Terry was killed has been a hot spot for bandits for years. In 2007, there were two fatal shootings involving bandits in the area.
Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada said he is grateful that the Border Patrol targets the bandits - allowing them to operate freely would not only result in harm to illegal immigrants but could also put residents who live along the border in jeopardy.
"It provides assurances to residents in the area that law enforcement is around," Estrada said.
The Pima County Sheriff's Department formed a border-crimes unit in April 2007 after bandits shot two illegal immigrants to death. Among the 18-deputy unit's goals is to monitor bandit activity, said Sgt. Gilbert Dominguez, a supervisor of the unit.
"To prevent them from running the area themselves, you have to provide a law-enforcement presence in connection to Border Patrol to provide protection for those citizens who live out there and for those illegal immigrants who are victimized," Dominguez said.
As a Border Patrol agent working in Douglas in the 1970s, Lee Morgan regularly chased after border bandits who broke into homes and took the loot south.
Back then, they were called "border burglars," and they carried knives or shivs, said Morgan, who retired in 2006 after 31 years as a federal law-enforcement official with the Justice, Treasury and Homeland Security departments.
The rip crews became more violent in the 1980s and 1990s as they started working for the Mexican drug cartels and corrupt Mexican cops, Morgan said. They began carrying guns instead of knives, and during the mid-1990s bandits broke into homes in Bisbee and Naco and assaulted residents, he said.
"They have progressively gotten worse in Arizona from the 1970s to the 1990s to where you are at now," Morgan said.
Two kinds of bandits
Today, there are two main types of bandits - crews that try to rip off drug loads and those that try to rob illegal immigrants, said Lt. Raoul Rodriguez, operations division commander with the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office.
The crews usually consist of three to five men, dressed in dark clothes or fatigues, often wearing ski masks, Rodriguez said. They carry assault rifles or handguns.
Groups that target illegal immigrants will usually pop up close to the border, demanding money and valuables and warning the people that they will kill them if they look back. Assaults and sexual assaults are commonplace. Crews that rip off drugs usually do it farther north, often 15 to 30 miles north of the border.
The bandits robbing illegal immigrants are often independent criminals based in Tucson or Phoenix who were on the fringe of drug trafficking and who have banded together, Coulson said.
In the last year, Mexican drug-smuggling organizations have begun using bandit crews to police their desert smuggling routes, ensuring that competitors are not using their trails, Coulson said.
"You don't want independents out there running dope," Coulson said. "They are not paying the tax; they are not paying their dues for running that corridor."
Law enforcement officials are split on whether the fatal shooting of agent Terry is a sign that more violence is inevitable.
The paradigm on the border has long been that it was bad business for drug smugglers to harm or kill U.S. agents because it would bring unwanted attention that would make it more difficult to move their marijuana. Shooters have often been killed by angry cartel bosses upon their return to Mexico.
"I'm hoping that it's going to be an isolated incident," said Lt. Rodriguez of Santa Cruz County. "It's not a very smart move to engage law enforcement the way they do in Mexico."
But Pima County Sgt. Dominguez said he expects there to be more shootouts with bandits. And Coulson is even more worried. The old paradigm is history now, he said, predicting that there will be a major violent event within a year between Mexican drug cartels and U.S. law enforcement in the United States.
"We're in trouble," Coulson said. "It's not a matter of if violent activity is going to occur, it's a matter of when. And when it happens, it's going to be significant."
Funeral today in Michigan
Border Patrol agent Brian Terry will be buried today at the Michigan Memorial Cemetery near Detroit after a church service at the Greater Grace Temple in Detroit.
A sampling of some of violent encounters between border bandits and illegal immigrants and federal agents:
• March 2, 2010 - A group of illegal border crossers fed up with being robbed a second time beat up two of the robbers, killing one, about 16 miles north of the border near Sasabe.
• March 22, 2008 - Bandits shoot and wound an illegal immigrant on Madera Canyon Road.
• March 19, 2008 - Bandits shoot an illegal immigrant in the leg near Arivaca.
• March 31, 2007 - Two Mexican men who told authorities they were trying to hijack a load of drugs open fire on a pickup truck filled with nearly two dozen illegal immigrants, killing two. The shooting occurs southwest of Green Valley.
• Feb. 27, 2007 - A member of a Border Patrol special-response team shoots and kills a suspected drug smuggler who had shot at him in the Rock Corral Canyon northwest of Rio Rico.
• Feb. 8, 2007 - Bandits open fire with AK-47s on a truck full of illegal immigrants northwest of Tucson, killing two men and one woman.
• Jan. 28, 2007 - Bandits attack a vehicle in Eloy containing 12 illegal entrants, killing one.
• Jan. 15, 2007 - A trio of bandits open fire on nine Mexican drug runners in the Tumacacori Mountains west of Tubac, killing two and wounding two. Four survivors walk into the community for help.
Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or firstname.lastname@example.org