March 25, 2009
by Jeremy Roebuck
ZAPATA - The nearly 50 deputies who make up the Zapata County Sheriff's Office have encountered Zetas, busted narcotics smugglers and grappled with dangerous gangs over the past several years, Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez says.
But that's nothing compared to the potential threat he sees on his community's horizon.
With Mexican drug trafficking organizations battling their country's government and each other just south of the border, the threat that violence could spill over into his rural jurisdiction weighs ever heavier on his mind.
"If you could see all the intelligence we get, you'd have no doubt," he said. "You can't ignore it - for the sake of the 13-year-old girls whose homes are invaded by masked men looking for drugs."
So far, talk like that has brought millions of dollars in state and federal funding to the officers of border sheriffs like Gonzalez and a pledge from Gov. Rick Perry to seek at least $110 million more to secure the state's southernmost counties before the end of the state legislative session.
Federal lawmakers have also devoted unprecedented attention in recent weeks to the "border situation," hosting a flurry of congressional hearings and public news conferences on the threat that violence could spill over.
But crime statistics collected by the Texas Department of Public Safety suggest the hand-wringing and speech-making may distort the reality on the state's southern frontier, according to a handful of border politicians and lawmen who are urging the state to reconsider the way it doles out border security funding.
A cadre of elected officials and rural authorities has exaggerated the threat Mexican drug cartels pose to border communities, they say, to score points with voters and bring home grant money to their otherwise cash-strapped agencies.
That outsized rhetoric has harmed economic development in border communities and unreasonably scared local residents, McAllen police Chief Victor Rodriguez said in a speech this week before the annual Texas Homeland Security Conference.
"We owe Texans and we owe our border communities responsible action that is based in reality - not rhetoric," he said.
Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster went further:
"There are some entities out there that think that the louder they scream, the more funding they're going to get."
Since taking office in 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderón has made rooting out his nation's entrenched drug trafficking organizations a top priority. The effort, while showing some signs of success in disrupting drug distribution routes, has spurred outbreaks of violence along his country's northern border.
Cities such as Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, and Tijuana, south of San Diego, have been the hardest hit, accounting for most of Mexico's 7,000 drug-related killings since January 2007. But so far, that violence has largely remained south of the border.
Starting in 2005, Perry and a group known as the Texas Border Sheriff's Coalition launched a vocal public campaign to alert federal authorities to the threats in their home state. The governor granted the group $6 million divided equally among the counties to beef up equipment and pay for overtime to respond to the possible threat of spillover.
Millions of dollars more have followed since then - including part of a $110 million border security package Perry helped push through the state Legislature during the last session.
Border lawmen like Hudspeth County Sheriff Arvin West say every dime of that funding has been well spent because the spillover effects are already here.
In recent months, his deputies have responded to two incidents in which county residents disappeared after visiting Mexico. Although his investigators haven't linked either case to drug violence, West said during an interview Tuesday that he couldn't rule out the possibility of such a connection.
Elsewhere along the border, law enforcement agencies continue to receive calls of home invasions and drug-related kidnappings every month.
The governor's office has pointed to these crimes as evidence of a growing threat, but the DPS crime statistics paint a calmer picture of life in rural counties like Hudspeth, whose population is estimated to be just over 3,000.
Between 2005 and 2007, West's office reported only 137 index crimes - which include law violations such as murder, aggravated assault, burglary and auto theft. The crime rate there has remained stable at between 40 and 50 index crimes a year, according to the DPS statistics.
In Zapata County, index crimes dropped from 325 reported in 2005 to 267 reported two years later - an almost 18 percent decrease.
And despite being located just across the border from the epicenter of Mexican drug violence - Ciudad Juarez - El Paso remains one of the safest metropolitan areas in the United States.
West, the Hudspeth County sheriff, maintains, however, that the crime stats aren't an accurate depiction of what the grant money has done for his county. Deputies working border security details have referred dozens of cases to federal agencies and there's no telling how many crimes they have deterred just by having more peace officers on the street, he said.
"The threat has been exaggerated?" he said during a Tuesday interview. "Tell that to the 6,000 dead ones over there. Tell that to the ones that have been kidnapped on our side."
STICKS AND STONES
Those who wish to reform border security spending define the spillover threat differently.
While Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño concedes his jurisdiction has had its fair share of drug-related crimes in the past several years, he points out that the day-to-day narcotics violence rarely involves Mexican cartel members and can be seen in any major U.S. city with a drug problem. Average Hidalgo County residents are no more or less safe than they were before Calderón began his cartel war.
Treviño advocates stricter auditing of how state grant money is spent and has argued more assistance should go to counties such as Cameron, El Paso and Webb, which lie on major smuggling routes near the state's ports of entry.
"Those types of crimes have been occurring for as long as drugs have been shipped across the border," the sheriff said. "If the sky is falling, then you better say it. But you don't want to be Chicken Littles either."