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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

Troops Keep A Low Profile Along The US-Mexico Border

 June 13, 2019 at 10:56 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 In the coming months, US troops are likely to have more direct contact with migrants along the US Mexico border. KPBS reporter Steve Walsh recently visited El Paso, Texas. That's where soldiers showed how the military has so far tried to keep its distance. Speaker 2: 00:17 Soldiers Speaker 3: 00:18 Marines are stretched along the border from California to Texas monitoring mobile surveillance cameras sitting in trucks provided by border patrol. At times, troops are so far away from the border that soldiers say they can't tell whether they're looking at a cow or a person been. So they are armed says task force commander, Lieutenant Colonel Timothy Gatlin. A soldiers always or marine is always authorized to defend him or herself. Uh, but that is not why we are here. That's not why the service member has the side arm. Uh, we are not taught to engage in this particular mission. Said we want to deescalate every situation that we come in contact with and turn it over to the supported element, which is the quarter patrol Speaker 4: 01:00 soldiers from Fort Lewis Mcchord near Tacoma, Washington are stationed around El Paso. They've been drilled on the rules of forest. When working with border patrol soldiers carry flashcards in Spanish to communicate with asylum seekers and other migrants. Colonel Paul and Nathan Garcia is deputy commander of joint task force north, which is in charge of the operation. He says troops mainly encounter people looking for water or people who want to turn themselves into border Speaker 3: 01:27 patrol. I would say on average we may be across the entire southwest porter wall. We'll have a, we'll have one or two that that APP, we routinely have maybe a couple of weeks Speaker 4: 01:38 hold of interactions a week. He says a handful of more serious encounters have been made public in April. Mexican military personnel stop to US Army soldiers conducting borders support operations in Texas, mistakenly believing that the soldiers had crossed into Mexico in May. Police in Yuma, Arizona made arrests after troops in the mobile surveillance mission reported someone aimed a weapon at them. Army north is also investigating a marine who discharged his weapon while stationed near El Centro, California Brigadier General Walter does need the deputy commanding general of US army north says contact between troops in migrants is uncommon. Speaker 2: 02:18 It is very uncommon for the duration that we've been involved in this operation and really the size of the operation in terms of, you know, the, the geographic size of the border, uh, it's actually small. Speaker 4: 02:32 They first arrived at the border in October. Troops have mostly perform missions that kept them away from anyone crossing the border. Soldiers and marines laid miles of concertina wire and erected barriers at the ports of entry in El Paso, a city heavily depended on trade with Mexico. Every aspect of border policy draws attention though the military's presence has barely registered. Speaker 2: 02:55 [inaudible] Speaker 4: 03:00 sandstones. Los Benito's Dick Carlos in Mickey's a busy Mexican restaurant just south of Fort Bliss. El Paso is also a military town. Some of its customers were in army uniforms. The day I visited. Sans is one of several restaurant owners who deliver food to asylum seekers, dropped off by border patrol. She says there are a lot of problems related to the way migrants are being handled, but so far she says most people don't blame the military Speaker 5: 03:26 in El Paso. We understand what the military is about. We don't blame them. We know it's there following orders are doing their jobs. You know how you follow orders. Of course, you know you can either do it with a certain amount of assertiveness or you can do it with understanding that these were just people Speaker 4: 03:45 troops could become more visible along the border. The Pentagon has agreed to begin transporting migrants to detention facilities and provide food service troops will also build six new detention facilities. Though the details of those operations haven't been released, meaning El Paso could see much more of a military presence in the coming months. Steve Walsh KPBS news Speaker 1: 04:08 and for more on this story, KPBS military reporter Steve Wash sat down with Priya. Sure. Either. Here's that interview. Remind us again what the troops are actually doing along the US Mexico border. Speaker 4: 04:20 So they've been a along the US Mexico border since about October, just before the last election. And they've been there pretty much ever since. Um, though they've kept a, as you said, a pretty low profile. Right now they have about 4,000 troops there, including National Guard, which means the number has been going down steadily. Um, there's actually been little interaction with them since the beginning of the year. We haven't really talked to anybody with the marines here in California since before Christmas. So when we had a chance to go to El Paso, we decided to take them up on it. Speaker 1: 04:54 So what exactly did you see while you were down there? So Speaker 4: 04:57 the biggest, most high profile mission all along the border has been the laying of this concertina wire, this razor wire. But that mission wrapped up, uh, more than a month ago. So now the biggest thing that they're doing about 1200 troops are involved with, uh, uh, they're in a mobile surveillance trucks. They, they're monitoring cameras from California all the way through Texas. Um, but you know, they have kept their distance. Um, they're very concerned about having interaction with migrants. Um, when I talked to one of the camera operators, they said sometimes they're so far away from the border that they can't really tell whether they're monitoring a person or a cow. So I may, there have been a few problems. They say a couple of times a week they'll, um, they will encounter migrants. Usually it's somebody who's looking for water or to turn themselves into border patrol. Then they quickly call border patrol and they take them away. Speaker 1: 05:50 So how are they measuring the success of what they're doing down there? Speaker 4: 05:54 So I talked with a Brigadier General Walter doesn't he? Who the deputy commander of army north, which is in charge of this whole operation. He says in the nine months and say been there that they've aided in the apprehension of 13,000 migrants and 3000 pounds of marijuana, which is a sizeable number. But when you look at the border patrol's figure, they came out with numbers thing that since the beginning of the year they've had 593,000 apprehensions and they seize more than 5,000 pounds of narcotics every month. So it's a small part of a much larger problem. Um, now the military says that they're, they're helping. What they're doing is they're freeing up, uh, agents. So the border patrol agents can move forward and interact more directly with migrants. But again, it's a small part of a larger problem. Speaker 1: 06:43 And this must be quite a unique situation for the city of El Paso and the people who live there. How are they reacting to all these troops being there? Speaker 4: 06:51 Right. So keep in mind, El Paso is a military town, just like San Diego. They have fort bliss there, so they're, they're well aware of the military. Uh, and right now there's a lot of fear and a lot of consternation about border policy just like there is in San Diego. But really that has not been reflected on the military's role in that. Now this could change. We're probably going to see more troops coming to the border in the next month or so. They've already signed on the Pentagon is signed on to a building six more detention centers along the border. They're also going to to, uh, start, um, transporting migrants to the various facilities and they're also going to be involved in feeding them. Um, they're also doing things like painting borders, uh, border barriers in Calexico, which some members of Congress that said, that's really not the role of, uh, of the, of the active duty military. So, uh, we're going to see more coming up the next couple months. Speaker 1: 07:49 Yeah, it's definitely gonna be an interesting situation to keep monitoring. I've been speaking with KPBS military reporter, Steve Walsh. Steve, thanks so much for your insight. Thanks for you.

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There have been a handful of incidents where troops have contact with migrants, but mainly soldiers and Marines have stayed away from close contact, according to the Army.
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