Crossing a line: Military encounter at border sparks Trump threats

Gen. Lori Robinson, then-commander of the U.S. Northern Command, toured the Southwest border with Border Patrol agents near San Diego in this 2016 file photo. Soldiers have since been deployed to support border operations and had an encounter with Mexican soldiers this month. (Photo courtesy U.S. Northern Command)

WASHINGTON – A border encounter between U.S. and Mexican soldiers earlier this month became a political issue Wednesday when President Donald Trump picked up the incident and threatened to send armed soldiers to the border in response.

Trump was reacting to an April 13 incident when a handful of soldiers encountered each other south of the border wall but north of the border – in what the Mexicans mistakenly thought was their territory.

The Defense Department and the Mexican government both said Wednesday they were looking into the incident, which ended peacefully. But Trump’s tweet accused the Mexicans of pulling guns on the U.S. soldiers “probably as a diversionary tactic for drug smugglers.”

“Better not happen again! We are now sending ARMED SOLDIERS to the Border. Mexico is not doing nearly enough in apprehending & returning!” his tweet said.

A statement from U.S. Northern Command, which manages the military’s support of Department of Homeland Security operations on the southern border, said the situation ended quickly, and that U.S. soldiers followed protocol during the incident.

“Though they were south of the border fence, U.S. soldiers remained in U.S. territory, north of the actual border,” the statement said. “After a brief discussion between the soldiers from the two nations, the Mexican military members departed the area.”

In a news conference Wednesday in Mexico City, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said his country would take into account Trump’s characterization of the incident as it investigated the event. He said that Mexico did not intend to fight with the United States and that it wanted to maintain a “respectful and friendly” relationship, but that it would do so within the law and with respect to its own sovereignty.

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For lawmakers who call for increased border security, however, like Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, the incident is further proof “that there is a crisis at the border and we must take action.”

“The number one job of both the President and Congress is to protect our citizens,” Lesko said in a statement issued by her office. “I’m calling on my Democrat colleagues to join myself and fellow Republican members of Congress to come together and pass legislation to fix our broken immigration system and end this crisis at our southern border.”

But America’s Voice, a progressive immigration reform group, said the tweet was just more of the same and that “the Trump administration’s goal is not solving problems, only exploiting them for the 2020 campaign.”

“Trump is at it again, putting immigration, the border and caravans front and center for 2020, and the humanitarian crisis he created at the border helps fuel his message of fear, chaos and division,” said a statement from Douglas Rivlin, a spokesman for the organization.

Trump first ordered troops to the border in April 2018, when National Guards units were deployed to support DHS border operations. In October, he ordered active-duty troops to the border, also in support roles, an operation that is expected to run through September. The number of active-duty soldiers peaked at 5,900, but had dropped to 4,350 in February and will likely fluctuate, the Pentagon has said.

No troops on the border, whether active-duty or National Guard, can be involved in the apprehension of immigrants crossing the border. They can offer support services, such as maintaining vehicles, manning surveillance equipment and helping fortify border barriers and ports of entry.

Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott, appeared to reference the Mexican soldier incident when he posted a tweet about a Conservative Review story Wednesday.

“We spend roughly $716 billion on the military every year and spent trillions in the Middle East, but our own territory remains unsafe not only for our ranchers, but evidently for our own active-duty military,” Gosar tweeted, quoting the story.

When asked by reporters Wednesday whether Trump would actually consider sending armed troops to the border, White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway said “he may.”

“The president is just making clear as he always has that he has many different actions at his disposal to try to stop this humanitarian crisis,” Conway said.

-Cronkite News reporters Alyssa Klink and Keerthi Vedantam contributed to this report.