Joint Task Force North, El Paso
Formerly known as Joint Task Force Six, Joint Task Force North (JTFN) coordinates military assistance to civilian law enforcement on everything from counterterrorism to drug law enforcement. The nature of this assistance includes training civilian law enforcement personnel to handle situations such as biological and chemical attacks, gathering and distributing intelligence to civilian law enforcement, and active military involvement in domestic law enforcement operations. The latter includes such activities as aerial surveillance, communications support, and construction of emergency roads and barriers. Rumors persist that JTFN would also coordinate any large scale military involvement in civilian law enforcement in case of a presidential declaration of national emergency.
JTFN’s predecessor, Joint Task Force Six, was established on November 13, 1989 by President George H. W. Bush. Dick Cheney, then Secretary of Defense, said “I believe that our military forces have the capability to make a substantial contribution toward drug interdiction, and I am instructing them to make the necessary preparations to carry out that responsibility.” Joint Task Force Six’s original mission was to provide intelligence and operational support to local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies in the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas; the stated goal was to stop the flow of illegal drugs from Mexico.
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While Joint Task Force Six was created by the first President Bush, its activities really got rolling during the Clinton presidency. In the last two years of the first Bush presidency, it performed 1,260 missions; in 1995, it performed over 4,000 missions. The missions gradually evolved from simple reconnaissance and intelligence sharing to actual military patrols of border areas, including isolated roads, leading to frequent and often aggressive encounters with civilians. Residents of border areas, especially those who appeared Hispanic, complained that Joint Task Force Six troops would be present at traffic stops con- ducted by local police. Cars traveling roads in remote border areas complained about being followed by military helicopters.
This was a prescription for tragedy, and on May 20, 1997, a Joint Task Force Six patrol consisting of four Marines shot and killed Eze-quiel Hernandez, an 18-year-old high school student, on his family’s farm near Redford, Texas. He was tending his family’s herd of goats, and, as was his custom, was carrying a .22-caliber rifle to kill any coyotes, rattlesnakes, wild dogs, or other pests he might encounter. Shortly before 6 p.m., Ezequiel’s sister and neighbors heard a single shot. Hernandez was later found dead from a shot fired by the M-16 rifle of one of the Marines.
The Marines had been dressed in camouflage for the countryside around Redford, and also carried full combat gear. The Marines claimed Hernandez fired first and produced two spent .22 shells as evidence, but Hernandez was described by locals as someone with better sense than to deliberately fire on armed soldiers. Some speculated he may have seen some movement, not realized it was caused by the Marines because of their camouflage, and opened fire thinking it was caused by a coyote. Other locals, noting that no advance warning had been given about the patrols, suspected Hernandez may have thought the Marines were robbers or other out to harm him. The Marines released few details about the incident (such as whether they verbally warned Hernandez before opening fire) and a grand jury investigation did not charge the Marines with wrongdoing. Angry locals noted the grand jury contained several U.S. government employees and that its impartiality was compromised as a result.
After the Hernandez incident, Joint Task Force Six strove to minimize contact with civilians and operate more in the background. That changed after the September 11 attacks. Because of fears that terrorists might be attempting to enter the United States via Mexico, Joint Task Force Six began extensive and aggressive patrols of border areas, and its contacts with civilians became more frequent and often confrontational.
In 2004, Joint Task Force Six’s responsibilities were expanded to include the entire continental United States instead of just the border states. Reflecting its new role, it was renamed Joint Task Force North (JTFN). JTFN’s mission is to “detect, monitor and support the interdiction of suspected transnational threats within and along the ap- proaches to CONUS; fuse and disseminate intelligence, contribute to the common operating picture; coordinate support to lead federal agencies; and support security cooperation initiatives in order to secure the homeland and enhance regional security.” JTFN defines “transnational threats” as those activities “conducted by individuals or groups that involve international terrorism, narcotrafficking, weapons of mass destruction, and the delivery systems for such weapons that threaten the national security of the United States.”
JTFN personnel are drawn from all branches of the U.S. armed forces as well as Department of Defense employees and contract personnel. Federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies must request assistance from JTFN; without such a request, JTFN can’t intervene in domestic law enforcement activities unless ordered to do so by the President. When JTFN does assist civilian law enforcement, its activities include aerial surveillance (including the use of unmanned aerial vehicles such as the Predator), ground reconnaissance via patrol teams and detection devices such as motion detectors, ground and air transportation, communications, construction, and intelligence-gathering and analysis. As mentioned earlier, JTFN also conducts training sessions for civilian law enforcement personnel in such areas as weapons and marksmanship, responding to biological and chemical attacks, and interrogation techniques.
JTFN still engages in patrol along border areas, and there are reports that JTFN’s real mission is to coordinate any large-scale military involvement in civilian law enforcement necessitated by a terrorist attack or a similar national emergency. For example, suppose it became necessary to quarantine a large city or even an entire state because of a biological terrorist attack (such as use of smallpox). In such a case, JTFN would likely take the lead in enforcing the quarantine or any other responses ordered by the President.
What’s There: JTFN is headquartered at Biggs Army Airfield, a component of the sprawling Fort Bliss complex. JTFN facilities are typical, ordinary-looking Army buildings, including classrooms, aircraft hangars, housing and dining halls, and recreational facilities. One would never guess that an organization as interesting as JTFN is based at Biggs.
Getting a Look Inside: Admittance to Biggs Army Airfield is restricted to authorized personnel only. However, it is easy to see the buildings and vehicles of Biggs from surrounding public roads.