Paseo del Norte, Part III

By Jessica M. Vaughan on March 10, 2009

Already published from this series:
Part I, Part II, and Part IV.

Don’t Mess With Texas

State and local governments (and their constituents!) have long been saddled with the economic and public safety consequences of inadequate federal efforts to control the border. In Texas in 2006, the situation was getting out of hand – Mexican organized crime organizations were smuggling drugs and people into and through the state with near impunity, leading to violence and other public safety problems there and elsewhere in the country. Gov. Rick Perry decided he’d seen enough, and launched a series of state-led operations to “take back the border.” In partnership with the Border Patrol and other federal agencies, they have largely succeeded. But the Mexican organized crime groups have not gone away; if anything, they are more determined, and this state effort deserves federal funding for expansion and possible replication elsewhere.

In January 2006, about 50 miles east of El Paso, 10 heavily-armed men in Mexican-style military garb crossed over the Rio Grande into the United States in black SUVs (at least one of which had been reported stolen in El Paso) carrying thousands of pounds of marijuana. When they encountered state police, they turned around and crossed back – no shots were fired, but the incident unnerved law enforcement agencies. A little over a month later, in Tyler, a state trooper was shot several times point-blank in the chest and neck by an illegal alien and his accomplice. They had been stopped for speeding and began firing on the trooper as he tried to arrest them for drug and weapons possession. After a harrowing pursuit during which more than 100 rounds were fired, they were captured, wearing body armor and carrying a large stash of weapons and drugs. In May, in Houston, a 26-year old man was shot to death in a restaurant parking lot, in front of his wife, while buckling in his young children. It was a case of mistaken identity – the real target, the Houston-based head of a Mexican cartel franchise, was eating inside (another assassin caught up with him six months later at a Houston motel).

Declaring that the most significant public safety threat facing Texas was the border, the Texas Office of Homeland Security, led by former senior federal agent Steve McCraw, devised a plan to reduce all border-related crime and disrupt and deter organized crime in the border areas. Known as Operation Rio Grande, the plan had three main components:

1. Increase patrols in the border region by supplementing the U.S. Border Patrol with state and local law enforcement officers.

2. Coordinate and centralize the collection and analysis of intelligence and incident reports on drug seizures, arrests, and other events to get a bigger picture of breaking developments and problem areas.

3. Create a centralized command and control structure to improve the response and deploy resources most effectively.

The plan was innovative in its reliance on expanding the basic patrol function and in bringing together various state agencies to coordinate operations, not to mention the dedication of substantial state funding and resources to addressing a border security problem.

The results were immediate and dramatic. Operation Rio Grande consisted of six surge operations conducted from June to October 2006 in different parts of the border area and the eastern coastal corridor leading to Houston. Crime in the border areas was reduced from 25 to 85 percent.

The next year, officials were able to roll out the operation statewide, to also cover major transportation corridors and cities, and involving nearly 7,000 state law enforcement and military personnel. The legislature provided $110 million for 2008 and 2009.

Since the onset of the operations, major crime in the border areas has been reduced by 65 percent. Local law enforcement agencies referred more than 32,000 illegal aliens to the Border Patrol. Apprehensions of illegal aliens have decreased by 45 percent. Millions of pounds of drugs have been seized. Officials cite evidence that drug smuggling operations have been disrupted; the cost of cocaine, for example, has increased and the purity decreased.

Still, there are limits to what can be accomplished. The unified command model seems to work well, but there is still a need for funding for permanent officer positions, rather than using overtime to stretch the existing forces. Funding is also needed for vehicles, equipment, and technology to sustain the operations.

Some El Paso leaders have been lukewarm or even opposed to the initiative. State Senator Eliot Shapleigh has suggested state leaders need to instead focus on facilitating the movement of vehicles and people across the border. District Attorney Jaime Esparza has claimed that FBI-run investigative drug task forces would be more effective for border security. County Attorney Jose Rodriguez has said that what is needed is “less security” so that people would not be afraid of the sheriffs.

The Texas Office of Homeland Security is carrying on, seeking $135 million in state funding this year, and hoping the federal government also will pick up some of the tab. Since the rest of the country also benefits from the interruption of Mexican drug and alien smuggling, this is a reasonable request.

One key next step is the implementation of southbound vehicle inspections at border crossing points. The Mexican government does not have the ability to conduct more than a small fraction of these inspections, and has asked for help. The southbound inspections are critical to the interdiction of the drug cartel and smuggling organizations’ bulk cash shipments (they apparently don’t use electronic transfer any more), weapons, vehicles (usually stolen) and fugitives. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency responsible for the legal crossing points, does not conduct southbound inspections, partly because they represent a logistical challenge, but mainly because such inspections are opposed by key interest groups, such as the border area chambers of commerce, the travel industry, and the immigration bar, which have convinced federal leaders to back off this issue. So Texas will have to do it for us. They are funding local officers, K-9 units, and technology upgrades, and the goal is to have 24/7 coverage of the ports.

As we gain better control of the borders, the pressure increases on the legal points of entry. The next installment will examine our efforts to manage the flow of temporary visitors from Mexico.