HOUSTON - A Texas sheriff's deputy warned U.S. federal lawmakers that drug traffickers are helping terrorists with possible al-Qaida ties cross the porous Texas-Mexico border into the United States.
Terry Simons, the chief deputy in Val Verde County, Texas, offered little evidence publicly of his claims. An FBI special agent in Houston, Shauna Dunlap, said there's "no credible evidence" that supports the warning.
Simons, part of a group that has been pushing state and federal officials for more law enforcement funding on the border, told congressmen meeting in Houston that Texas authorities have learned of newly established camps in Mexico, where so-called "narco-terrorists" are getting trained in "escape and evasion, as well as fighting techniques and combat maneuvering."
Simons also said the FBI has informed the border sheriffs that suspects with Islamic backgrounds - and possibly al-Qaida ties - are training with them.
Simons and other members of the Texas Border Sheriffs Coalition outlined the threat in a presentation to U.S. Reps. John Culberson, a Republican of Texas, and James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican.
"We need more boots on the ground," Simons said. "The thing we're facing, it's a war."
Culberson said the FBI told him that suspected terrorists from countries "with known al-Qaida connections" have adopted Hispanic surnames and are "blending in with the other illegals coming over the border."
Sensenbrenner said protecting the border is now a national security issue.
"What I learned today is the type of people who are coming across the border have changed," Sensenbrenner said. "Now, a lot of the people coming across the border are criminals, and potentially terrorists - people who have a mind to commit crimes against Americans and maybe to blow us all up and kill us."
In December, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a border security bill authorizing $100 million (?82.9 million) for the sheriffs in the border counties. The money can be used to hire more deputies, build detention facilities and buy equipment, including weapons.
"The threat has changed on the border," Culberson said.
The bill is now pending in the U.S. Senate.
In Austin, Texas, Sen. John Cornyn, another Texas Republican, said immigration reform and border security are "very high" on the Senate's agenda and could be addressed as early as mid-March.
"We know in a post 9/11 world, the same vulnerability that allows people who want to come across to work can be exploited by criminals, drug cartels and those who perhaps want to come to the United States to perhaps terrorize innocent Americans," Cornyn said.
Federal officials in San Antonio Friday announced nearly 30 arrests and the seizure of explosives, machine guns and other weapons in a crackdown that started in July in the border city of Laredo.
Officials with the Border Enforcement Security Task Force said they had arrested 28 people and seized materials to make 33 lower-grade explosive devices, such as pipe bombs or grenades. They also seized dozens of assault rifles, machine guns, silencers, hundreds of pounds of narcotics and $1.4 million (?1.16 million) in cash.
Cornyn warned against assuming the seized items belonged to terrorists.
"This is concerning, but I would say we have to be careful and make sure we get the facts and not act on the basis of rumor or speculation," he said.
The task force is made up of federal, state and local police who coordinate efforts and also exchange intelligence with Mexican law enforcement.
Associated Press Writers Jim Vertuno in Austin, Texas, and Abe Levy in San Antonio, Texas, contributed to this report.
(Associated Press WorldStream -- 02/06/060