Early Wednesday morning, drivers and cyclists headed for the DeConcini Port of Entry in downtown Nogales found themselves confronted by an intimidating sight: at least two dozen U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers blocking northbound vehicle lanes, many outfitted in riot gear including batons, body armor and helmets.
The show of force wasn’t in response to a threat – the officers were doing “mobile field force drills” to “train CBP officers on special response tactics,” an agency spokesman said in a statement. But there was no way for the public to know for sure, since the drill wasn’t announced in advance or explained to the travelers who found their morning commute briefly put on pause.
Even the Nogales Police Department, which often assists CBP with traffic control at the port, was left in the dark, a spokesman said. And it took the Nogales International several hours to get an official confirmation from CBP about what had gone down.
Manuel Ruiz, the county supervisor for District 1, which includes the downtown Nogales area, said it wouldn’t have hurt to give a heads up via news media or other avenues in advance of the exercises.
“It’s probably very intimidating to see people in (either) riot gear or some kind of tactical gear that they’re using,” he said.
J. Hiram Gonzalez, a Nogales, Sonora-based journalist, wrote in a Facebook post that officials told him the exercises lasted 20 minutes. Gonzalez originally reported the traffic stoppage between 8 and 9 a.m. on Wednesday morning.
While U.S. land ports of entry are currently closed to “non-essential” travel from Mexico, there are exceptions for U.S. citizens and permanent residents, as well as people traveling for reasons including work and medical treatment.
In a statement to the NI, CBP didn’t address the purpose of the morning rush hour drills or directly answer questions about why there hadn’t been any advance notice of the exercises. “This was an impromptu rehearsal and we appreciate everyone’s patience and understanding during these necessary exercises,” the statement said.
Once the action was underway, it caught the attention of travelers who snapped pictures and started circulating images and comments on social media.
“It seems like one is in Star Wars,” somebody wrote.
Ruiz said the incident made him think about exercises at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, which are regularly advertised in news media with phrases like, “You may hear sounds like gunfire, or you’re going to see emergency vehicles.”
“While I understand the job that they do at the port,” Ruiz said, “sometimes when things like this happen, they probably strain our relationships a little more, because it scares people, because they’re wondering what’s going on, even though it’s an exercise.”
The unannounced show of force at the port suggests that CBP tactics seen in Nogales under the Trump administration have carried over to the new administration of President Joe Biden.
Starting in 2018, when then-President Trump began raising alarm about a caravan of Central American asylum-seekers making their way through Mexico toward the U.S. border, CBP regularly sealed off lanes at the local ports or conducted riot trainings without explanation or advance warning to the local community.