(CNSNews.com) - Violence against Border Patrol agents -- including attempts to run them over and behead them with wire -- increased by almost a third in 2007, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said on Friday.
He interpreted the increased violence as an indicator that the border is becoming more secure, a point he also made three years ago in the face of escalating violence.
At a joint press conference with Attorney General Michael Mukasey, Chertoff said his department would put a priority on building border fences near U.S. "transportation hubs" as a "protective measure for the Border Patrol," but that in some other places the department might deploy only surveillance technology.
Chertoff pointed to the number of aliens intercepted coming across the Mexican border, which declined 20 percent last year, as another indicator that the border is becoming more secure.
"There is one last metric that shows success," he said, "and it's an unfortunate metric: an increase in violence against the border patrol, up 31 percent last year. As I have reluctantly but consistently predicted, as we strike at criminal businesses, they are going to strike back."
In a November 5, 2005 speech in Houston, Texas, Chertoff made this same point.
"We have begun to make progress against the criminals and thugs who operate the human trafficking rings on our borders," he said then. "But, as a result, we are beginning to see more violence in some border communities and against our Border Patrol agents as these traffickers -- criminal predators -- seek to protect their turf."
Chertoff said the violence against Border Patrol agents has taken many forms.
"In recent weeks we lost an agent who was killed because he was run over by a smuggler who was fleeing back into Mexico," said Chertoff. "That was just one example of what we're seeing increasing. Now it ranges...occasions of people shooting at agents, trying to run agents down with vehicles, throwing large rocks or pieces of brick or concrete at agents, which actually can be fatal; and I've seen some pretty serious injuries that have resulted from it. And the levels have consistently increased."
"Just this month," he said, "the border patrol discovered a piece of wire that had been stretched across a road between a double fencing, so that it could be pulled and literally decapitate an agent if the agent was riding in an open vehicle like an ATV or something of that sort."
The violence is not limited to the U.S. side of the border. "Of course there's a lot more violence south of the border, and that's an issue the Mexicans are tackling," said Chertoff.
Mukasey, who visited Mexico last month, said that country has become an "indispensable partner" in securing the border, thanks to the work of the administration of Felipe Calderon, who was elected president of Mexico in 2006.
"We've seen record numbers of extraditions from Mexico," said Mukasey. "We've seen a government, in the Calderon administration, that is willing to take the fight to the [drug] cartels."
Chertoff said his department will have what he called "pedestrian" or "vehicle fencing" along 670 miles of border by the end of this year. The Secure Fence Act of 2006 mandated that the secretary of Homeland Security construct more than 700 miles of double fencing along specific stretches of border.
"As of yesterday, we have had a total of 302.4 miles of pedestrian fence and vehicle fence, which continues us on pace to hit our total of 670 miles of combined pedestrian and vehicle fencing in place by the end of this calendar year," said Chertoff.
He refused to comment on statements made by Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama at a CNN debate last week in which the two Democratic presidential candidates argued for deploying a "virtual" rather than a physical fence in deference to the concerns of people living along the border. (See story)
"I don't do debate commentary," Chertoff said. "But I will tell you in general what our approach on the border is, which has been consistent since we started this well over a year and a half ago.
"We use the right mix depending on what the particular terrain is. There are some areas where physical fencing makes a lot of sense, particularly in areas where the distance from the border to a transportation hub, what we call the vanishing point, is a very short distance. And there, fencing is important both in order to make it harder to get across that distance and also to try to be a protective measure for the border patrol.
"But there are other areas where high technical or even medium-technical approaches work better. And we're happy to use those."
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