The head of the Arizona National Guard on Tuesday told lawmakers that four soldiers did the right thing when they backed away from their post earlier this month when confronted by gun-toting border crossers.
“Our Guardsmen follow the procedures they were told to do,” Maj. Gen. David Rataczak told members of the House Committee on Homeland Security and Property Rights. “They followed the SOP (standard operating procedures) to the letter of the law.”
Arizona lawmakers called the hearing in response to an incident on Jan. 3 in which four National Guard troops from Tennessee left a lookout post at the border after being approached by four to six gunmen.
The soldiers pulled back and contacted Border Patrol agents, who tracked the armed men back to the border but didn’t find them.
Rataczak said the troops had loaded weapons that they could have used if fired upon. But the rules of engagement set out by the U.S. Department of Defense prohibit soldiers from chasing or apprehending border crossers.
Those rules are part of Operation Jump Start, last year’s plan by President Bush to send Guard units to the border as a short-term stopgap while more Border Patrol officers can be hired.
But Rataczak’s explanation provided little comfort to legislators who questioned him for several hours.
The legislators argued that the nearly 2,200 Guard troops now in Southern Arizona should be free to apprehend illegal crossers.
“I believe the National Guard are there basically as a window dressing,” said Rep. Warde Nichols, R-Chandler. “They’re not able to do anything.”
Nichols said lawmakers voted last year to spend $10 million to put Arizona Guard troops along the border in a more active role — a bill that was vetoed by Gov. Janet Napolitano because she said it infringed on her right as the state Guard’s commander in chief.
Nichols said Bush and his administration share the blame.
“They’ve failed us in this area, too,” he said.
While the hearing cannot change the rules of engagement for Operation Jumpstart, Nichols said they may help renew efforts to have Arizona Guard soldiers along the border in a more active role.
Rataczak, however, said that would militarize the border.
“We are not at war with Mexico,” he said. “They are our friends.”
He also said the soldiers did not actually abandon their post, saying they kept the site — and the equipment there — under scrutiny. And the general said the intruders never overran the site.
In fact, Rataczak told the legislators that the whole incident has been overblown, calling it “a chance encounter.”
He said the men, who were coming from the north, likely were drug runners who had delivered their cargo and were headed back into Mexico with their cash.
Rataczak said they tripped across the Guard site but were not anxious to confront them, if for no other reason than being apprehended and then having to explain to the drug lords in Mexico what happened to the money.