SASABE, Ariz. - Tennessee National Guardsmen using heat-sensing and night-vision equipment spotted the six backpackers crossing the border into Arizona from Mexico.
The guardsmen, who can see for several kilometers through the equipment, called in U.S. Border Patrol agents to intercept the group.
"The place they found them was â€˜Marijuana Tank,' really close to the border," Assistant Chief Patrol Agent John France said Thursday. "As soon as our agents drew near these guys, they just dropped their dope and ran."
"We took their dope but we didn't get the bodies," he said.
The discussion about the drug interception was part of a Border Patrol briefing for Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen as he began a two-day tour of Guard operations along the Arizona-Mexico border.
About 400 Tennessee soldiers are currently deployed in Arizona as a part of Operation Jump Start, involving 6,000 guardsmen working in support of Border Patrol efforts in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California.
Arizona shares a 376-mile border with Mexico, much of it in remote and difficult terrain. France, whose responsibilities include coordinating Border Patrol and Guard operations, said efforts to restrict illegal immigration and drug enforcement go "hand-in-hand."
"You don't know who these people are until you arrest them, run the checks and identify them," he said. "They could be an average Joe who wants a better life, they could be a criminal, or even a terrorist."
Bredesen traveled by Blackhawk helicopter from Tucson to Sasabe, about 60 miles to the south, to visit with Tennessee guardsmen working as engineers and manning entry identification posts.
At one dusty outpost, engineers worked under a camouflage canopy welding together rail segments to make vehicle barriers that will be placed along the border.
"We have basically been the eyes and ears of the Border Patrol," Pfc. Christopher Phillips, of Dickson, Tenn., told the governor in the briefing. "The mission we have been given is to observe, report, and let the agents do their jobs more efficiently."
"Everybody's happy with what we're doing here, everyone feels we're making a difference," Phillips said.
Phillips said that Guard units in the area had spotted 5,000 illegal immigrants cross the border since November, and about 700 were captured within his 3,500-acre operating area. Over the previous 30 hours, 487 immigrants were spotted and 105 were arrested by Border Patrol, he said.
Bredesen said he was surprised to hear about the amount of drugs smuggled across the border. The Border Patrol said it has seized 400,000 pounds since October along one 262-mile stretch of the Arizona border with Mexico. "The drug component is one I didn't think was this large," Bredesen said, also noting the expanse of land that needs to be covered. "When you step out and look how large this place is, and how small the command posts are, it just underlines the difficulty that they face in doing all this," he said at an observation post near the area called Marijuana Tank less than a mile from the Mexico border. The post is also near where four Tennessee guardsmen in January encountered a group of armed men, believed to be drug smugglers. The soldiers followed training and withdrew to their post to call Border Patrol to respond. No shots were fired. The incident prompted calls from some lawmakers in Arizona and Tennessee to expand the Guard's role to include apprehending illegal immigrants and policing against drug smuggling. Opponents have said changing the Guard's mission would militarize the border. Bredesen noted that some of the guardsmen involved had previously served in Iraq and Afghanistan. "They weren't afraid," he said. "It's unfortunate that it's been turned into a little bit of political football," Bredesen said. "They were doing what military people do: and that's to follow orders." AP-CS-03-01-07 2212EST