"U.S. and Mexican officials on Tuesday were investigating a bizarre encounter between Texas lawmen and heavily armed intruders who were wearing Mexican military uniforms while evidently escorting a caravan of sport utility vehicles that was smuggling marijuana into the United States.
The smugglers, spotted on the U.S. side of the border in remote western Texas on Monday afternoon, hastily fled back into Mexico, leaving behind nearly a half ton of marijuana and setting one of their vehicles ablaze.
Although no shots were fired and no one was hurt, the episode along with an incident in November heightened fears that Mexican traffickers and U.S. border agents are headed for a potentially deadly confrontation. American officers, who have long complained about being outgunned along the border, point out that the armed men seen Monday were riding in a military-style Humvee equipped with what looked like .50-caliber machine guns.
''It's an explosive situation," said Becky Dean-Parker, a Hudspeth County judge and local rancher. ''This is the second major incident where people with military-type uniforms and weaponry came in the defense of drug loads. We are very, very concerned because all it would take is one person to pull the trigger and it's going to be a disaster."
Mexico's secretary of defense has ordered a full investigation into the incident. However, Rafael Laveaga, a spokesman for the Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C., said he does not think the men in military fatigues seen escorting the traffickers were soldiers. The Mexican military installation in Ciudad Juarez, which is nearest to where the incident occurred, does not have any vehicles or weapons like those described by the Hudspeth County sheriff's deputies, he said.
''We strongly deny that members of the Mexican army participated in any incident at the Mexican-U.S. border," Laveaga said. ''I think it's fair to say that criminal organizations sometimes wear military uniforms and use military vehicles to provide confusion among authorities of both countries."
Mexico's presidential spokesman Ruben Aguilar insisted again today that the uniformed men were drug smugglers, not Mexican soldiers. Aguilar said the FBI supported that view, but he gave no evidence of the claim.
"These were not Mexican soldiers," Aguilar said at a news conference. "It is known that these are drug traffickers using military uniforms and they were not even regulation military uniforms."
Still, Washington is demanding answers.
Kristi M. Clemens, assistant commissioner for U.S. customs and border protection, issued a statement saying the agency is reviewing the confrontation and has asked the Mexican government for a ''thorough investigation."
"Criminal networks present a serious threat to border security and their lawlessness is not going unchecked," she said.
Deputies chased SUVs
According to the Hudspeth County Sheriff's Department, deputies began a chase Monday afternoon of three SUVs seen leaving the banks of the Rio Grande near Neely's Crossing, about 50 miles east of El Paso.
As the vehicles raced back toward the river, the smugglers abandoned a Cadillac Escalade later found to contain more than 1,400 pounds of marijuana.
Three Hudspeth County sheriff's deputies, with help from two Texas Department of Public Safety troopers, pursued the two remaining SUVs.
On the Texas side of the Rio Grande, they encountered uniformed men in a Humvee mounted with what appeared to be .50-caliber machine guns.
One of the two vehicles successfully made it back into Mexico, but the third bogged down in the riverbed on the Mexican side.
After the men who were dressed like soldiers unloaded what appeared to be drugs from the vehicle, they set it on fire, deputies said.
Gov. Rick Perry has ordered an investigation into the episode.
''Whether indeed members of the Mexican military crossed into Texas, or they were thugs dressed up as Mexican military, the incident is unacceptable and troubling," said Perry spokeswoman Kathy Walt.
Funds dedicated to security
Such threats along the border, she said, prompted Gov. Perry to dedicate $6 million in federal grants to a border sheriff's anti-crime group.
The money pays overtime that allows deputies to patrol border areas known for high crime.
Monday's incident "is a very troubling reminder that powerful Mexican drug trafficking organizations continue to smuggle drugs across our border and commit other violent crimes."
In November, Hudspeth County officials came to the aid of U.S. Border Patrol officers after they encountered a group of men in Mexican army uniforms who were attempting to smuggle three tons of marijuana across the river.
Miles of river unpatrolled
Dean-Parker, the county judge and rancher who lives 50 miles from the Rio Grande, said remote stretches of the border are in dire need of stepped-up patrols.
''We have miles of unpatrolled river, and they cross just anywhere," the judge said, referring to drug traffickers. ''It's very apparent what's going on. They're wanting to do their business and they're wanting us to stay away."
Earlier this month, the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in California said Mexican military units or impostors had crossed into U.S. territory 216 times since 1996, citing a report from the Department of Homeland Security.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff characterized most of the incursions as mistakes and called the report overblown.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.