Dirt roads trace pale lines across a desolate landscape of bald peaks and plunging canyons near Texas' Big Bend and bridge the border at dozens of improvised crossings. For decades, these routes have been used to smuggle drugs and humans. Now there is growing concern they could become deadly conduits for terrorism.Maybe it's all for nothing:
The concern is buttressed by a confidential but unclassified FBI intelligence bulletin, obtained by The Dallas Morning News, that contains the vague outlines of a possible terrorist plot.
Officials from both sides of the border played down the possible threat but acknowledged that it is the sort of scenario they have to guard against. The prospect of terrorists crossing the southern border has been a rising concern among officials in Texas and Washington.
The plot, according to uncorroborated information provided by an FBI informant, involves a man, described as an Arab who goes by the nickname 'El Espanol,' and Ernesto Zatarin Beliz, also known as El Traca, suspected of being a Mexican drug trafficker and member of the Zetas, the feared enforcers of the notorious Gulf cartel.
'El Espanol is gathering truck drivers with knowledge of truck routes in the United States and explosive experts' in the state of Coahuila, according to the March 11 memo, which originated in the San Diego FBI office and was made available by a U.S. attorney's office. The informant 'believes that the activity in Coahuila, Mexico, is terrorist related.'
The San Diego FBI analyst who wrote the document declined to comment. The division's spokeswoman said publication of such sensitive information would undermine the bureau's mission.But still...
'We are trying to protect national security,' said Special Agent Jan Caldwell. 'We can't do that when things like this are put in newspapers.'
A senior Mexican intelligence official said the information in the memo had not been corroborated.
'The informant paved a road that led nowhere,' the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. He added that Mexican federal agents spent 'literally weeks chasing down the information, only to come up empty-handed.'
The border patrol's Marfa sector is its largest, covering 510 miles of border with Mexico, including part of Big Bend National Park, and bordering the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Coahuila. With some 200 agents, it has the smallest force of any sector along the Mexican border, according to Bill Brooks, the sector spokesman.
Much of the area is desert and mountainous terrain, dotted by at least a dozen informal crossings known as Class B ports of entry. These consist of makeshift bridges capable of carrying foot and some lighter vehicle traffic. Authorities tried to seal them off after Sept. 11, 2001, but several have been re-established. Officials acknowledged that agents cannot regularly police the informal crossings.
'Who ever imagined that terrorists would use passenger planes to crash into tall buildings?' Mr. Hoffman said. 'After Sept. 11, we have to operate on a different mindset, one in which we take absolutely nothing for granted. Is it possible terrorists can come across this border with explosives or a dirty bomb? Absolutely.'