March 9, 2009
by Jennifer Berghom
AUSTIN -- State and national influence makers have exaggerated the security situation on the Texas-Mexico border, creating a "culture of fear" that has hurt economic development, a panel of mayors said Monday.
The city heads urged politicians, law enforcement officials and media organizations to find a balance between economics and public safety when developing their response to Mexico's mounting drug violence.
"It's important to understand that the situation in Mexico is not the situation in Iraq," Brownsville Mayor Pat Ahumada said, testifying before the state House Committee on Border and Intergovernmental Affairs. "While there are places with great turmoil, this is not the whole country."
Since Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched his ongoing campaign to root out his nation's entrenched crime syndicates in 2006, sporadic violence has erupted up and down the border between cartels fighting federal forces and each other.
More than 6,000 people died last year as a result of drug-related violence, according to statistics kept by the Mexican attorney general's office.
"I've seen those heads of people cut off and rolled across the floor," said Dan Flynn, an East Texas Republican who serves as the committee's vice chair. "Anytime you have that kind of violence, you have to be prepared for spillover."
But aside from exceptions like Ciudad Juarez - where more than 460 people have died this year -- most Mexican border cities remain relatively safe. That hasn't stopped a handful of politicians and law enforcement officials from using sporadic incidents to push perceptions of a rapidly deteriorating situation, the mayors said.
"The more they shout wolf, the more funds they get sent to them," said Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster.
Gov. Rick Perry cited a Feb. 17 shootout in Reynosa that left six dead in his request last month for troops to help protect against the threat of "spillover violence."
Last week, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, re-emphasized the need for federal intervention by noting U.S. Defense Department estimates that Mexico's two largest drug cartels had amassed a "small army" of 100,000 foot soldiers.
Such talk at the state and national level has already had an impact on the Rio Grande Valley, McAllen Mayor Richard Cortez said.
Nineteen businesses considering moves to McAllen and the bordering Reynosa maquila district have backed out in the past several months over security concerns.
Brownsville Mayor Pat Ahumada pointed to his city's recent Charro Days festival, in which the city had planned to host more than 600 square dancers for a record setting event. Instead, only 80 showed up.
The misperceptions have become so widespread, Cortez told lawmakers, that members of his family living in other cities expressed concern recently that he might be assassinated.
"I can tell you today that there is no violence in the streets of McAllen," he said.
The mayors urged lawmakers to consider policies that would address the demand for drugs on this side of the border, crack down on U.S. cash and arms smuggling networks and upgrade technology and personnel along the ports of entry.
"Unless we address the underlying problem you'll have to keep spending more and more," Hidalgo Mayor John David Franz said. "The day drugs are worthless on the American streets - that's the day the drug cartels move away from our border."