Federals facts contradict producer fears about border security.
May 27, 2011
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples is frustrated. He’s received countless reports of farmers and ranchers being scared off their own property by armed members of Mexico’s drug cartels. Yet, when Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano came to El Paso, TX, last March, she said the border is safer than ever.
“Over the last year, it seems like the intensity, the boldness and the brazenness of the drug cartels had gotten to the point that they’re just terrorizing our farmers and ranchers,” Staples told DTN. He launched a website, www.protectyour texasborder.com, to chronicle the dangers and hopefully convince federal authorities there’s more going on than statistics show.
But some politicians say Staples’ anecdotal stockpile contradicts all kinds of federal data showing the border is more secure than ever.
According to FBI crime statistics, El Paso, TX, Nogales, AZ, and San Diego, CA, are some of the nation’s safest cities.
Napolitano often touts the safety of border towns in the same breath as declining apprehensions of illegal entrants, record-breaking drug seizures, and unprecedented manpower and funding. She recognizes current measures don’t account for everything, and her department is working to create a better gauge of border security.
Staples argues that farmers and ranchers still suffer and Texas taxpayers foot too much of the bill for a national responsibility. Texas has spent at least $79 million on border enforcement equipment and personnel in the last four years, the Texas Legislature stated in an approved resolution to ask Congress to send more assistance. That doesn’t include the $200 million annually the state spends on prosecuting and housing foreign inmates. Texas has repeatedly asked the federal government for more resources, to no avail, the resolution said.
“It is a clear and present danger. We cannot ignore the violence that is occurring and the consequences to our people,” Staples said. Border farmers and ranchers fear people who cross through their pastures, not knowing if they’re mules for drug cartels or migrants in search of a better life. Law enforcement officials on the ground in the border region feel their job is growing more dangerous, too, especially since Mexican cartels have killed three Border Patrol agents within the last year.
“U.S. citizens are being kidnapped and killed while our Border Patrol agents fight a war at home that no one will allow them to win,” the National Border Patrol Council, a union of non-supervisory border patrol agents, said in a press release.
The Obama administration launched the Southwest Border Initiative in 2009 and spent $184 million. Congress backed the effort up and approved $600 million in 2010. Since President Obama took office, the size of the Border Patrol more
than doubled to 20,700 agents, while the number of intelligence analysts and liaisons to Mexico greatly expanded.
Obama authorized the temporary deployment of 1,200 National Guard troops to provide intelligence and infrastructure. Their deployment was scheduled to end this summer, but Napolitano said the government will reprogram funds to maintain the troop level. The Texas Legislature requested in its letter an additional 1,000 National Guard troops for Texas.
The U.S. is now screening all southbound railroad shipments for illegal weapons and cash. Since the initiative launched in 2009, the U.S. seized 31 percent more drugs, 75 percent more currency, and 64 percent more weapons than the prior two and a half years. The border fence will be complete in the fall and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is sending two more unmanned Predator aircraft to patrol the border from California to Texas, providing valuable video footage and thermal imaging.
DHS has so far spent $123 million on Operation Stonegarden, a grant fund to state and local law enforcement agencies. “Stonegarden remains the one truly effective program which brings local, state, and federal law enforcement together along the border” said Raymond Cobos, the sheriff for Luna County, NM, in congressional testimony. The program pays for new staff, overtime, vehicles and advanced technology. Many law enforcement officials noted in congressional hearings that they’d like to see more Operation Stonegarden grants.
Napolitano said in testimony before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security that the Customs and Border Patrol department is putting together a border security index because the current apprehension and drug seizure numbers don’t give a complete picture of border security.
“This index will help us measure progress along the southwest border comprehensively and systematically, rather than by anecdote,” she stated. “Any violent crime that occurs along the southwest border—or anywhere in our country—is unacceptable, and this administration is fully committed to addressing such tragedies with the full force of the law. But individual crimes do not tell the whole story.”
A group of independent, third-party advisers, including law enforcement, border community members, former members of Congress and think tanks, will provide input to create the index. A call to the Border Patrol press office inquiring if farmers and ranchers would be represented in this group was not returned.
The data Napolitano doesn’t mention is a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that states Border Patrol has operational control of 873 out of almost 2,000 miles, or 44 percent, of the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s the most since they started tracking data in 2005, but it’s not enough to ward off all critics.
GAO defines operational control as having the ability to detect, respond and interdict illegal activity at the border (controlled, about 15 percent of those miles under operational control) or after entry (managed, remaining 85 percent). The highest levels of operational control are in the Yuma, AZ, sector. California’s two sectors are close behind. The Tucson sector and El Paso sector are somewhere in the middle, while operational control drops dramatically along the Rio Grande, ranging from 10 percent to 40 percent depending on the sector.
Statistics capture only a part of the picture
Violent crimes have dropped 30 percent in southwest border counties, Napolitano said in testimony, while crime rates in Arizona border towns have remained essentially flat. The crimes the FBI uses in its crime estimates are murder, rape, aggravated assault, robbery, burglary, larceny and auto theft.
Kidnappings, disappearances, home invasions and confrontations with armed smugglers—the kinds many ranchers experience—don’t count and often aren’t reported.
Texas’ Zapata County Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzales includes all of the above in his definition of spillover violence along with bullets fired from the Mexican side of the border that hit U.S. buildings, a not uncommon occurrence in his area. In his congressional testimony, Gonzales said his depart ment hears of kidnappings from unnamed informants, since families are too afraid of cartel retributions. He wonders what other crimes aren’t reported because of fear.
If a suspected cartel member operating on the U.S. side of the border is killed or a U.S. citizen is killed in Mexico, it doesn’t count in official statistics. The State Department estimates cartels murdered at least 106 U.S. residents in Mexico last year, compared to 79 in 2009 and 35 in 2007, although there’s no way to be certain, since the number doesn’t count Americans who disappeared while visiting Mexico. Cartel-on-cartel violence also doesn’t count in official tallies.
Staples said there have been several instances of oilfield workers being savagely beaten in recent months, and he doubts those are counted in government statistics. The paved roads of Texas’ oil fields are a smuggler’s haven: cartels have cloned oilfield vehicles and the paved roads allow them to bypass border patrol checkpoints.
“The bullet holes are real and the attacks on our citizens are real,” Staples said.
“This is extremely violent. While some of our cities along the border are safe, I might add, the rural regions are where this traffic, this drug traffic, has been rerouted.” Rural regions tougher to defend In desert areas of California, a fence keeps dune buggies from crossing into the U.S. Much of the border in
Arizona, New Mexico and Texas is desert, rolling grassland and brush land covered with mesquite trees. A 15-foot-tall steel fence marks the international boundary there, but it’s impossible to fence the rugged mountain ranges and canyons and even more difficult to patrol.
Fewer than five miles of the 652-mile border fence are left to be completed, but it’s not a deterrent to people who want to cross it unless someone is patrolling it on the other side, which there often isn’t in rural areas.
Patrick Bray, executive vice president of the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association, said there are spots on the border where he has sat and not seen a Border Patrol agent for an entire day— they’re four or five miles north. The Obama administration makes a point that it defends the border “in depth” with layers of agents and defenses operating up to 100 miles north of the border.
“What they’ve got is a hugely successful security apparatus at the main gate, like an airport,” said Hereford, AZ, veterinarian and rancher Gary Thrasher, referring to the ports of entry and fence patrols in cities. “But it’s like leaving the back door open. At the airport, out there on the other end of the runway where no one’s watching, that’s where the gate is open, which is ridiculous.”
In Arizona, the Border Patrol operates with minuteshoursdays mentality. If they’re pursuing a suspect in a city, Border Patrol figures there are minutes to catch them before they disappear into a safe house. A few miles outside of a city, Border Patrol figures they have a few hours. In rural areas, they have days to track illegal crossers.
The minuteshoursdays mentality means more apprehensions happen in cities, adding to the safety statistics, and fewer and fewer are made as you get farther away, Bray said. If a Border Patrol agent doesn’t have enough back-up—often the case on Arizona’s 10-by- 20-mile ranches—he or she can’t pursue a suspected smuggler. The drug cartels know where and how the
Border Patrol operates and have adapted to take advantage of it. “It seems that these drug cartels are always one step ahead of us,” Bray said.
Many farmers and ranchers are moving away from their land, afraid of an encounter with armed drug smugglers. Arizona rancher Rob Krentz’s death looms large in the memories of border ranchers. He was killed by suspected drug smugglers while checking a water line last year.
“As ranchers, when something’s broken, they just go fix it,” Bray said. “If they can’t, well, then they figure out a way to deal with it or work around it. And so this issue, they were dealing with it or working around it. The death of Rob Krentz really shook the core of not only that community but the entire community along the southern border. They realized that all of them now are vulnerable. You never know when you’re going to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you shouldn’t have to live that way in the United States.” — Katie Micik, DTN