SIERRA BLANCA, Texas – Men in Mexican military-style uniforms crossed the Rio Grande into the United States on a marijuana-smuggling foray, leading to an armed confrontation with Texas law officers, authorities said Tuesday. No shots were fired.
The men retreated and escaped back across the border with much of the pot, though they abandoned more than a half-ton of marijuana as they fled and set fire to one of their vehicles, authorities said.
The Mexican government denied its military was involved.
The confrontation took place Monday and involved three Texas sheriff's deputies, at least two Texas state troopers and at least 10 heavily armed men from the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, said Rick Glancey of the Texas Border Sheriffs' Coalition.
Gov. Rick Perry ordered an investigation.
"It's certainly troubling and unacceptable and a real reminder of how an unsecure border threatens all Texans and the rest of the nation," said Perry spokesman Kathy Walt.
The Mexican Foreign Relations Department issued a statement saying that drug traffickers and other organized criminals have used uniforms and vehicles before. "It is possible that these actions were designed to damage the image of our armed forces," it said.
Monday's incident follows a story in the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario, Calif., on Jan. 15 that said the Mexican military had crossed into the United States more than 200 times since 1996. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has said reports of Mexican incursions into the United States were overblown and most were just mistakes.
The confrontation on Monday took place was near Neely's Crossing, about 50 miles east of El Paso, and started when state police tried to stop three sport utility vehicles on Interstate 10. The vehicles made a quick U-turn and headed south toward the border, a few miles away, Glancey said.
When the SUVs reached the Rio Grande, police saw the occupants of a green, Mexican Army-style Humvee apparently waiting for the convoy, Glancey said.
Police stopped and watched as the vehicles began to cross the shallow river into Mexico. Both sides -- the Americans and the smugglers -- had their weapons drawn.
One SUV got stuck in the river, and another blew a tire on the Texas side. Its driver ran into Mexico.
Men in the Humvee tried to tow the stuck vehicle out of the river. When that failed, a group of men in civilian clothes began unloading from the SUV what appeared to be bundles of marijuana. They then torched the SUV, Glancey said.
Deputies found about 1,400 pounds of marijuana in the vehicle that had a flat tire. The vehicle had previously been reported stolen from El Paso.