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Border areas fear Guard exit

The thousands of National Guardsmen sent to reinforce the U.S.-Mexican border two years ago have almost completely withdrawn, despite pleas from border-state governors once skeptical of using soldiers to catch illegal immigrants and drug smugglers.

When the Guard was posted on the southern frontier in 2006 to help the strapped Border Patrol, critics warned that sending soldiers would insult Mexico and that innocents could be shot by troops trained for combat, not law enforcement.

But none of that happened, and now those worries have given way to fears that a bloody drug-cartel war in Mexico will spill into the U.S. and overwhelm the Border Patrol.

The four border-state governors who contributed the bulk of the troops have tried in vain to persuade Congress and the White House to extend the Guard's presence, which is to end July 15.

“Until Border Patrol has all its new boots on the ground, there's going to be a vulnerability,” said Pahl Shipley, spokesman for New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

The Border Patrol said the National Guard force, which reached a peak of 6,000 before diminishing last year, bought it enough time to hire and train more agents. The patrol expressed confidence that it can hold the line on its own.

“We're fine taking over. It's all part of our plan,” said Border Patrol spokesman Lloyd Easterling.

Only a few hundred Guard members are left on the border, most of them finishing up construction projects in Arizona and New Mexico.

The Guard was sent in a support role. Members used helicopters and night-vision gear to watch for people trying to slip across the border, then told Border Patrol agents where to find them. They also built roads and fences.

The Border Patrol's ranks have swelled by nearly 5,000 since the beginning of Operation Jump Start, reaching more than 16,400. But the Border Patrol is still short of the 18,000-agent goal set for the end of the year.

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