DEL RIO - A recent standoff between National Guardsmen and heavily armed outlaws along the Mexican border has rattled some troops and raised questions about the rules of engagement for soldiers who were sent to the border in what was supposed to be a backup role.
Six to eight gunmen -- possibly heading for Mexico with drug money -- approached a group of Tennessee National Guard troops at an overnight observation post Jan. 3 on the U.S. side of the Arizona-Mexico border. No one fired a shot, and the confrontation ended when American troops retreated to contact the Border Patrol. The gunmen then fled into Mexico.
But the incident made some National Guard commanders nervous enough to move up training dates for handling hostage situations. And some lawmakers have questioned why the rules prohibit soldiers from opening fire unless they are fired upon.
"Why would this be allowed to happen?" Republican Arizona state Rep. Warde Nichols said. "Why do we have National Guard running from illegals on the border?"
Nichols said until the rules of engagement are changed, the troops are little more than "window dressing ... to say we are doing something about border security."
"We want to untie their hands," he added. "We want to put them in a primary role."
The standoff was the first known armed encounter between National Guard troops and civilians since President Bush ordered about 6,000 soldiers to the border in May to support the Border Patrol and local law enforcement. The guard was supposed to be the "eyes and ears" for other agencies and was not given authority to arrest or detain illegal immigrants.
The men who confronted the soldiers were armed with automatic weapons and wearing ballistic vests when they saw the soldiers, split into two groups and appeared to be trying to surround them, authorities said. Before the Guardsmen retreated, one gunman came within 35 feet of the soldiers, according to a National Guard report. The outlaws' nationality was unclear, investigators said.
Republican Arizona state Rep. Jerry Weiers said the rules of engagement put soldiers in a tough position.
"My real, true, honest concern here is that we don't return fire until we have been fired upon, and by then we have probably lost a life," Weiers said.
Arizona's Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, a Republican whose prosecution of illegal immigrants has drawn national attention, called the incident "a deep embarrassment" that highlights growing dangers from well-armed drug traffickers and human smugglers along the border.
Texas soldiers will undergo additional training on what to do if they are separated from their teams or taken hostage or kidnapped.
"It mainly encompasses how to treat your captors, what to think about when you are in that position and what to do when you are being rescued," Staff Sgt. Henry Aguirre said as he watched three soldiers on an overnight shift survey the darkened Rio Grande just outside Del Rio.
Guard officials had planned to run the training later this year, Aguirre said, but the standoff "increased the urgency."
Several soldiers said the Arizona confrontation worried them.
"I didn't think they were going to get that bold," said Sgt. Samuel Perez of Savannah, Ga. "It's kind of been chilling that somebody is going to be that crazy."
First Lt. Wayne Lee, a spokesman for the New Mexico National Guard, said soldiers "are not supposed to get into a firefight. It's not the Sunni Triangle."
Because the units are under separate control, there's no uniformity on how the soldiers are armed.
National Guard officials said the Tennessee soldiers did have loaded weapons on Jan. 3 and even readied their guns to fire. But Arizona officials have declined to describe whether its troops always keep their guns loaded or how they are armed, other than to say they have ammunition, bulletproof vests and Kevlar helmets.
But other border states have varying policies.
In New Mexico, soldiers working along the sparsely populated border carry unloaded M-16 rifles each soldier carries a separate loaded clip and don't always wear bulletproof vests. On a recent afternoon near Columbus, N.M., several soldiers had their vests on the tailgate of a military truck.
In Texas, where violence in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, has occasionally spilled into Larerdo, Texas, the Guard troops can keep their M-16s or 9MM Barrettas loaded and they were bulletproof vests.
California authorities also wouldn't disclose the details of their weapons.
"We have weapons and we have ammunition and we have the training to use (them)," said Master Sgt. Michael Drake, a Guard spokesman in California, said. "We are armed for our own protection."
T.J. Bonner, president of the Border Patrol agents' union, said the soldiers sent to bolster his agents are unnecessarily at risk.
"It's not like some picnic down there," Bonner said. "Anyone down there enforcing the laws is going to be caught up in the violence."
Bonner said he worried that the soldiers apparently can only defend themselves "once the bullets start flying."
"It's a recipe for disaster," Bonner said.
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