June 8, 2006

Border role not new for discreet US military unit

By Tim Gaynor

EL PASO, Texas (Reuters) - While the first U.S. National
Guard troops are finding their feet in a new role on the Mexico
border this week, one discreet military unit has aided police
there and on the Canadian frontier for years.

Last month President George W. Bush ordered 6,000 troops to
help Border Patrol agents secure the porous frontier, and the
first few soldiers arrived in Arizona earlier this week.

The deployment has upset many in Mexico who say they are
unhappy at the increasing militarization of the border, while
some residents in U.S. border states remained skeptical about
the role troops will play there.

But a cadre of Marines, soldiers, sailors, airmen and
defense department civilian specialists have used cutting-edge
military technologies and know-how to help federal law
enforcement there since the 1980s.

Originally called Joint Task Force Six, the group includes
engineers, map makers, radar and intelligence specialists and
was founded in 1989 to help federal police curb drug smuggling
over the 2,000-mile (3,200-km) Mexico border.

Renamed Joint Task Force North two years ago, it was given
a broader role to support law enforcement agencies in efforts
to secure the U.S. mainland from threats including
"international terrorism" and drug trafficking.

"Working on the border is nothing new for the military,
we've been supporting law enforcement there for years," said
Col. Barry Cronin, JTFN's deputy commander, adding that they
would be there "after the National Guard has gone."

In 2005, the El Paso, Texas-based unit carried out 63
operations nationwide, including 55 on the Canadian and Mexican
borders. Its kit includes unmanned aerial drones, combat radar
systems, long-range infrared optics, and seismic detectors.

"Typically we'll go in with our planning and organizational
abilities, offering federal law enforcement agencies a kind of
one-stop shopping for all their needs," said Lt. Col. Dan Drew,
JTFN's chief of future operations.

Utah National Guard troops arrived in Yuma, Arizona, this
week, where they will patch border fencing and add security
lighting, and New Mexico National Guard troops are due to
deploy to Las Cruces over the weekend.

They are the first of several units that will help the
Border Patrol secure the border for up to a year. They are set
to play a support role and will stop short of making arrests.


Joint Task Force North is not involved in the National
Guard deployment. But the scope and nature of the unit's prior
support to federal law enforcement is evident in a Mexico
border operation last year.

Dubbed Operation Western Vigilance, the deployment of 400
military personnel to deserts west of El Paso enabled Border
Patrol agents to arrest 2,020 intruders from Mexico and impound
more than 1,000 pounds of smuggled drugs.

In it, soldiers used high-powered Forward Looking Infra-Red
thermal imaging sensors to provide the Border Patrol with
advanced intelligence on traffickers and undocumented
immigrants as they trekked north from staging areas in Mexico.

The operation also used Hunter aerial drones from a
military intelligence battalion to monitor movements along the
Arizona-Mexico border, and sent Marine Corps engineers to put
up lighting along a steel border fence in Arizona.

Another operation, on the Canadian border, threw a
battlefield radar net across a stretch of coast between British
Columbia and Washington State to help agencies like the Border
Patrol and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police track smugglers in
a cross-border marijuana trade valued at $6 billion a year.