Success in tightening border in Arizona means people- and drug-smuggling gangs increasingly look to remote Texas for route into US
US border protection officials are preparing to shift their attentions from Arizona to Texas in a bid to combat the evolving efforts of Mexican gangs to smuggle people and drugs across the frontier.
The area near Tucson, Arizona’s second-biggest city, is currently the most porous section of the almost 2,000-mile long south-west border. The Department of Homeland Security will award contracts to companies to install fixed towers and remote video surveillance in the state later this year.
However, Mark Borkowski, assistant technology innovation commissioner with US Customs and Border Protection, told the Border Security Expo in Phoenix that recent success in tightening the frontier near Tucson means that criminals are increasingly looking for safe passage in remote parts of south Texas.
Arrests by US Border Patrol around Tucson accounted for one-third of the south-west border’s total in 2011 compared with nearly 50% in the previous year. But the percentage of apprehensions rose in Texas regions including the Rio Grande Valley, Laredo and Del Rio. The government intends to acquire mobile surveillance systems and place most of them in Texas.
The US government has increasingly deployed advanced gadgetry such as surveillance drones and cutting-edge sensors to police the border with Mexico. But Borkowski said that budget cuts that were planned even before the additional burden of sequestration mean that there will be less money to spend on new technology, with future policy likely to favor tried-and-trusted and cost-effective security measures and re-using equipment from the Department of Defense.
Still, he raised the possibility that border agencies will offer prizes to encourage innovation, and said that the government is keen to improve its capacity to combat low-flying aircraft and will launch an initiative to tackle tunnels used by Mexican cartels, who effectively control illegal traffic at the border.
The number of border agents doubled between 2004 and 2010 to about 21,000, and funding has continued to rise sharply under the Obama administration. A combination of improved security and a worsening economy has sharply slowed the flow of illegal migrants in recent years. The US Border Patrol made fewer than 330,000 apprehensions on the southwest border in 2011, compared with almost 1.2 million in 2005.
Yet officials are still forced to play catch-up to well-funded and powerful criminal groups. As one leak is plugged, another springs up.
“In terms of innovation and agility the cartels are in many respects unparalleled,” said Matthew Allen, an agent with Arizona immigration and customs enforcement. “They adapt much faster than we do. They watch what law enforcement does, generally every day … Human beings are treated much more like a commodity than they ever were.”
Elizabeth Kempshall, executive director of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program, said that when law enforcement is successful, violence worsens as gangs sense weakness in a rival and attempt a power grab.
Control of drug-running and people-smuggling corridors is now so competitive and expensive that repercussions are inevitable if cartel operations are stalled or thwarted.
The past six months have seen an increased use of catapults and slingshots to hurl packets of drugs over border fences and walls, said Ron Colburn, the president of the Border Patrol Foundation, which provides support to the families of killed or injured agents.
Colburn said that maritime operations also pose a new challenge. Gangs formerly employed semi-submersibles, but when the US improved its detection ability they switched to fully-submersible vessels.
The city of Nogales in Arizona is the hub for trafficking tunnels. Kevin Hecht, the Deputy Patrol Agent in Charge at Nogales Patrol Station, said that the US has discovered 162 tunnels nationwide since 1990 with 95 of those in Nogales in the past 13 years. Hecht said that tunneling crews are patient and determined enough to spend years digging through even the toughest terrain. His force also has to keep an eye on manholes since smugglers try to float bundles of marijuana through the transnational sewage system.
South-east of Tucson, Cochise County has 1,500 border patrol agents keeping watch on an 83-mile stretch of the frontier. Yet the frustrated county sheriff believes that the manpower is not being used effectively. “There’s something broke,” said Mark Dannels.
Dannels claims that ranchers on the border are living in fear because of daily incursions by illegal immigrants who then evade poorly-located road checkpoints deeper into the state. Attempts to make cities safer have resulted in rural regions such as Cochise County becoming more vulnerable because the hostile desert and mountain terrain has proved less of a deterrent than expected.
“One of the current challenges we see now is that as we have gotten better at securing the border with personnel technology and infrastructure primarily in the urban areas, now that traffic has moved somewhat to more rugged, more difficult terrain,” said Manuel Padilla Jr, the acting chief patrol agent for Tucson sector.
Dannels said that part of the region was poorly protected. “Everybody thinks there’s a big fence that’s 20ft tall – that’s not true,” said Dannels. “There’s no cameras, there’s no big fence. It’s a barbed wire fence that you can step right across, it’s broken down so bad. Their thoughts are, ‘tactically it’s too hard for us to deploy our agents down in that area, our resources, so we’ll just get you up on the highways’. [But residents say]: you know where the gate’s at. Get down there and hold the gate closed.”
The sheriff said that co-operation with Mexican forces is limited. “We don’t work with them a lot. In past times years ago we had a better working relationship than I see now,” he said. “Law enforcement is not going to Mexico. We don’t even cross the line based on the fear of what could happen to us.”
Dannels said that border police also face the sinister reality that the cartels have spies within US law enforcement who feed information south and facilitate crime.
“They’re embedded in our communities. They’re also embedded into our government agencies, as secretaries, working in our jails,” he said. “We just had a detention officer arrested six months ago with a load of marijuana. He works right within our public safety umbrella. That’s scary to me. Very scary.”
[Border patrol agents via AFP]