Mexico denies that its helicopter crossed into Arizona

McClatchy Foreign StaffJune 27, 2014 

— Mexico denied Friday that a government helicopter flew over the border into Arizona and fired two shots at U.S. Border Patrol agents, despite a claim by a Border Patrol spokesman that the air incursion and shooting took place.

Mexican authorities said several government helicopters took part in a raid on a ranch near the town of Altar in the border state of Sonora to free 39 migrants held against their will by human traffickers.

The ranch, known as La Sierrita, abuts the border, but no Mexican aircraft crossed the international line, said Tomas Zeron de Lucio, chief of the Agency for Criminal Investigation.

"I do not think we crossed the border because we have navigation equipment, but it was exactly 100 meters from the border," Zeron de Lucio said at a news conference in Mexico City.

The raid occurred before 6 a.m. Thursday.

A Border Patrol spokesman, Andy Adame, said in a statement that a Mexican helicopter "crossed approximately 100 yards north into Arizona nearly 8 miles southwest of the Village of San Miguel," which is on the Tohono O'odham reservation. The aircraft was on "a drug interdiction operation," Adame added.

"Two shots were fired from the helicopter but no injuries or damage to U.S. property were reported," Adame added.

Border Patrol Tucson Sector Union President Art del Cueto told KVOA News 4 in Tucson that the shots from the helicopter appeared aimed at Border Patrol agents on the ground.

The station reported that Mexican authorities called their U.S. counterparts and "apologized for the incident" after the helicopter landed.

Zeron de Lucio, speaking in Mexico City, said two helicopters took part in the raid on the ranch, and forces on the ground freed 26 Mexican migrants and 13 Central American. He said Mexican agents destroyed a radio tower at the ranch that was used as part of human smuggling operations, and added that smugglers on the ground fired at the aircraft.

Mexican authorities believe an average of 400 migrants a day pass through the border area near the San Miguel Gate, which is in the heart of territory under jurisdiction of the Tohono O’odham tribe.

In a tweet, Zeron de Lucio’s office said the raid "was coordinated and agreed to with Customs and Border Protection," the Department of Homeland Security agency that oversees border issues.

Mexican police and soldiers have been known to stray into U.S. territory.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican, said on his website last week that the Department of Homeland Security had tallied "a total of 300 documented incursions by Mexican military and law enforcement authorities" since Jan. 1, 2004. Hunter said the department told him that in 152 incidents, the Mexicans were armed, and in 81 cases "physical or verbal contact was made."

In one of the more serious cases, two heavily armed and camouflaged Mexican soldiers crossed the border Jan. 26, drawing their weapons on Border Patrol agents in a tense standoff before retreating back across the border.

U.S. officials chalked up the event as unfortunate but unintentional. Mexico said the soldiers were pursuing drug traffickers.

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