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Military Counterdrug Mission Under Review

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 1, 1997 – DoD pulled U.S. troops from patrols along the U.S.-Mexican border while defense officials review the role of military troops in counterdrug activities.

"The entire policy is under review," Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon said July 29. "That review has several elements to it. One is whether it's appropriate for military troops to be involved in border patrol activities."

If deemed appropriate, he said, "what are proper operating procedures for them? What's the proper relationship between them and the [U.S.] Border Patrol and other law enforcement agencies? Another question is, do they have adequate legal protection?"

DoD expects to complete the review within the next month or so, Bacon said. In the meantime, he said, DoD officials decided to suspend the patrols.

The review was sparked by a May 20 incident in Texas in which Marines killed a local 18-year-old man who allegedly fired at them. DoD officials said this was the first time a member of the military shot a U.S. citizen during a drug surveillance mission.

Bacon said the incident raised the issue of whether U.S. forces are liable to civil or criminal action for performing their jobs under the rules of engagement and procedures assigned by the military. "That's something that domestic law enforcement agencies are looking at, and it's something we want to look at as well," he said.

About 240 troops support local law enforcement agencies along the nearly 2,000-mile border. At any one time, Bacon said, about 24 soldiers and Marines in teams of three or four patrol the border. Working from two or three observation points, they report suspicious activity to local law enforcers. "The troops do not apprehend people," he said. "They provide information to others."

The patrols are only a small part of the military's support to counterdrug operations, Bacon said. The military also provides intelligence, surveillance, electronic listening and engineering support. The suspension affects only those troops on border patrols, he said.

"The military is very committed to providing support to the war on drugs," Bacon said. "We provide between $800 million and $1 billion worth of support a year. "We perform mainly reconnaissance, listening and observation activities.

U.S. forces provide information used by law enforcement agents in seizing illegal drugs, he said. A recent drug bust in the Caribbean, for example, which netted several tons of illegal drugs, was due to information provided by U.S. forces, Bacon said.

"We estimate that every dollar of DoD money spent on supporting the border operation yields about $40 in seizures of illegal drugs, so we think we're playing an important role," Bacon said.

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