June 19, 2010
by Emma Perez Trevino
From the construction of the border fence to the deployment of unmanned aerial drones, federal initiatives have cost billions of dollars to secure the U.S.-Mexico border and have been mired in challenges and setbacks, public records show.
Audits by U.S. Congress’ investigative arm, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), also reflect that numerous initiatives have been stymied and plagued by mismanagement, lack of coordination and no oversight.
And in the case of aerial drones, the rush to deploy new units to secure the border could compromise safety and more.
THE BORDER FENCE AND VIRTUAL FENCE
In November 2005, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security implemented its most expensive and challenging initiatives under U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Secure Border Initiative (SBI).
The components of SBI included the construction of about $2.6 billion worth of fencing and a $1.6 billion virtual fence.
“It has been an utter failure,” Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos, a Republican, said of SBI, which began under Republican President George W. Bush and has continued under Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration.
GAO reported that as of April, CBP had completed 646 of the 652 miles of fencing and that it plans to have the remaining six miles completed by December. CBP also plans to construct 14 more miles of fencing in the Rio Grande Valley Sector by September.
“CBP reported that tactical infrastructure (fencing), coupled with additional trained agents had increased the miles of the southwest border under control, but despite a $2.6 billion investment, it cannot account separately for the impact of tactical infrastructure,” GAO found.
“I don’t believe that it is doing what they thought, what I thought it was going to do,” Cascos said. The fence is still being constructed in the county, and Cascos said that it has numerous gaps that are being lit by floodlights. “The initiative is not working, not in our part of the country; not based on what I see.”
Meanwhile, the $1.6 billion virtual fence, initiated in 2006 and known as SBInet, covers 53 miles in the Yuma and Tucson sectors. But GAO reported that as of April, Border Patrol agents continued to rely on existing technology rather than SBInet.
“According to my calculations, (the cost of the virtual fence) equals nearly $20 million per mile,” U. S. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Mississippi, chairman of the U. S. House
of Representatives’ Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement issued June 17, when a hearing was held on the initiative in Washington, D.C.
The plan was to have SBInet in place throughout the 1,989-mile U.S.-Mexico border by 2009.
The virtual fence is composed of a network of sensors, cameras, towers and radars that are supposed to detect and track movement on the border, and transmit the data to video terminals at command centers and agents’ vehicles to assist in identifying illegal activity.
GAO found that sensors can’t differentiate between vehicles, humans and animals — although the ability had been a requirement of the system. The radar also couldn’t differentiate between humans and vehicles.
But those in charge of the project decided to waive these and other significant requirements. “The system is now only required to achieve a 49 percent probability of identifying items of interest that cross the border,” GAO found.
“As even my two daughters know, 49 percent is not even close to a passing grade,” U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, and chairman of the House Subcommittee on Border, Maritime,and Global Counterterrorism, said June 17 in a written statement.
“I think the big issue is the way border security has been handled by the past and present administration,” Cascos said. “There is divisiveness and partisanship and a lot of animosity. I believe that it is affecting some of the decision making process. They all work for the same people — the taxpayer — but yet they are also so protective of their own department that they don’t speak to each other, costing time and money.”
DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano in March froze funding for SBInet and reallocated $50 million to other available technologies, such as mobile radios, according to GAO.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, also isn’t satisfied with SBInet, but, “while the implementation of SBInet has been unacceptable, the last thing we need to do is cut border security funding,” Cornyn told The Brownsville Herald in a written statement Friday.
Cornyn said that Obama’s budget request for fiscal year 2011 would cut SBI by more than 25 percent and the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program by more than 12 percent.
“The White House even wanted to cut the Border Patrol by 181 agents — before Congress made clear that wasn’t going to fly,” Cornyn said.
Cornyn said that he introduced legislation that would have reallocated $2 billionin unspent stimulus funds toward much needed personnel, equipment and resources to southwest border communities.
“Unfortunately, it was defeated because Democrats and the president continue to underestimate the gravity of the situation and pay lip service to our citizens who are demanding that their government act,” Cornyn said.
U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, did not return a request for comment.
U.S. Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Texas, said that, “a border wall running through our South Texas land is not the answer to our nation’s security,” adding that alternatives and new tools must first be assessed for their viability and efficiency.
The Merida Initiative is a three-year plan initiated in 2007 for $1.4 billion in U.S. assistance to Mexico and Central America to fight criminal organizations and disrupt drug and weapons trafficking, illicit financial activities, currency smuggling and human trafficking, the Congressional Research Service noted in a report to Congress in May 2009.
At a May congressional hearing, Thompson said that records showed Mexico has received only $161 million since the plan was implemented.
GAO noted in December 2009 that factors affecting the timing of the Merida funding process included statutory condition of the funds, challenges in fulfilling administrative procedures, and the need to enhance the ability in the U.S., Mexico,and Central America to implement the assistance.
The spokesman for U.S. Rep. Solomon P. Ortiz, D-Texas, said in a statement Friday that Congress and the administration are working with counterparts in Mexico to develop the next phase of the initiative.
According to information from Cornyn’s office, major Mexican drug cartels have 100,000 members, rivaling the size of Mexico’s military.
Cornyn’s office also noted that:
22,700 lives were lost since Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon launched the offensive against drug cartels in December 2006.
9,635 people were killed in Mexican gang or cartel-related violence in 2009, more than triple 2007.
4,324 people were murdered in Cuidad Juarez since 2006.
3,365 lives were lost in the first three months of 2010 as a result of drug-related violence in Mexico.
522 Mexican military and law enforcement officials were killed in 2008.
$25 billion in estimated annual sales of Mexican drugs to the U.S.
“By many accounts, Mexico now ranks as more violent than Iraq or Afghanistan,” Shannon O’Neil, with the Council on Foreign Relations, said in a statement May 27 before congressional committee and subcommittee hearing in Washington D.C. on the future of the Merida Initiative.
O’Neil elaborated that the initiative does not take into account that the U.S. must do its part.
“The Merida Initiative overlooks three U.S.-based factors that perpetuate the drug trade and drug violence: guns, money, and demand,” O’Neil said, noting that all serious studies show that the vast majority of the guns used by the drug trafficking organizations come from the U.S. “As the United States asks Mexico to uphold its laws at great monetary and human cost, it should enforce its own laws.”
Hinojosa said that the Merida Initiative is a crucial strategy that unites the U.S. and Mexico in a commitment to secure the border.
“Both countries are committed to stopping the violence, cracking down on the flow of drugs and weapons that cross our border every day,” he said in a statement to the Herald on Friday. “By helping Mexico in its fight against crime, we are also helping the United States.”
A GAO review found in June 2009 significant challenges to the country’s efforts to combat firearm sales in the U. S. and the flow of weapons into Mexico, but the agency noted that evidence indicates that a large proportion of the firearms fueling Mexican drug violence originate in the U.S.
GAO said that according to Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) officials, U.S. efforts are hampered by laws relating to restrictions on collecting and reporting information on purchases, a lack of required background checks for private firearms sales, and limitations on reporting requirements for multiple sales.
GAO also documented another problem: ATF and DHS’” Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), do not consistently coordinate efforts because the agencies partly lack clear roles and responsibilities, resulting sometimes in duplicate initiatives and confusion during operations.
GAO said that law enforcement agencies and the U.S. Department of State have provided some assistance to Mexican counterparts in combating arms trafficking, but that it has been limited and has not targeted arms trafficking needs.
UNMANNED AIRCRAFT SYSTEMS OR VEHICLES
The Federal Aviation Administration is being bombarded.
State and federal elected officials and private enterprise have been pressuring FAA to issue waivers and exemptions, allowing for unmanned aircraft, also referred to as drones, on the National Airspace System throughout the country and Texas where they would operate together with commercial and private aircraft.
FAA recently approved DHS’s request to allow CBP to operate a drone in West Texas for border security, but a problem occurred in the first flight June 1 into Texas. Although not all details are known, it was serious enough to bring a temporary halt to CBP’s operations to provide personnel with further training.
A request to FAA to allow a drone along the border from West Texas to Brownsville and to the Texas coast is pending.
Ortiz’s spokesman said that the congressman supports the use of unmanned aerial vehicles amid other security initiatives.
In a speech on Nov. 18, 2009 in Arizona, regarding the future of UASs in the national airspace, FAA Administrator J. Randolph Babbitt noted that, “While the UAS is undoubtedly the way of the future, my concern must be on today, and right now, the era of the unmanned aircraft system in civilian airspace is just not here yet. Much as we’d all wish the case were different, the level of technical maturity isn’t where it needs to be for full operation in the National Airspace System.”
Noting that standards need to be developed, Babbitt said that everyone must move in the same direction before it happens. “Those safety standards must be the same for everyone, even if no one’s in the cockpit.”
In the event that FAA approves drone flights into Cameron County, Cascos’ hope is that personnel who operate the drones are well trained and that the aircraft be fully tested “and tested and tested” in a barren area.
“You don’t test it up and down the Rio Grande among urbanized areas. They are a lot larger than kites, and weigh more than kites,” the county judge said.
Brownsville Mayor Pat M. Ahumada Jr. said drones in Cameron County would be fine, “if we were at war with Mexico. But we are not at war. I’m very concerned,” the mayor said about the possible advent of drones in the community.
Ahumada said that the drones, the border fence and virtual fence are “very expensive initiatives with very poor returns.”
“We have gone to extremes. It has caused division in our country,” he said, suggesting that the billions of dollars should instead be spent on combating the demand for drugs in the U.S. and the exportation of firearms, while reinforcing the Border Patrol with more officers.
“Let (the officers) do their job,” he said.