Monday, March 22, 2010

Spillover Possible?

Spillover violence from Mexico: reality or exaggeration?

Star Telegram

El Paso, foreground, is just across the Rio Grande from Ciudad Juarez. In a letter, a state senator cited anecdotal reports that elements of gangs in Juarez may be moving their operations to El Paso's Mission Valley.

Austin, Texas - From his office window, El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen has a clear view of Ciudad Juarez, El Paso's blood-drenched sister city just across the Rio Grande in northern Mexico.

The carnage that has claimed 4,700 lives over the past two years has been confined primarily to Juarez. But Allen is taking no chances. He recently obtained approval to buy 1,145 M4 rifles -- civilian versions of the military weapons used by U.S. combat troops -- to put his officers on equal footing with the heavily armed criminals in Mexico's drug gangs.

The drug war across the river is "so dadgum close that it has to be a concern to the law enforcement community here," Allen said. "You have to speculate that it could come here. That's a reality."

"Spillover violence," as it's now officially labeled, is a much-feared Mexican import that nobody wants. But law enforcement officials, municipal leaders, political figures and diplomats disagree on whether it is already showing up in Texas -- and to what extent. It has also emerged as an issue in the governor's race between Republican incumbent Rick Perry and Democratic challenger Bill White.

Responding last week to the slaying of a U.S. Consulate worker and two others in Juarez, Perry ramped up law enforcement operations along the border by activating a year-old contingency plan to deal with spillover violence. Several border-area mayors said Perry took the action without consulting them, and White suggested that Perry may be overstating the dangers for political gain.

"Exaggerating border violence can undermine economic development efforts of border communities, and that hurts Texas," White, a former three-term mayor of Houston, said in criticizing Perry's "secret" contingency plan.

But Perry said his action was necessary because the federal government has resisted his calls to strengthen border security.

"How many Americans will have to die before our federal government takes serious action along the Texas-Mexico border?" Perry asked in activating the plan.

The killing of the consulate worker and her husband last weekend brought new urgency to the law enforcement crisis in Mexico, raising concerns among some officials that the government of Mexican President Felipe Calderon may be waging a losing battle with the drug lords.

A delegation from the Obama administration will meet with Mexican officials this week to discuss the situation, including flaws in a 3-year-old $1.3 billion aid package that the United States granted the Mexican government to help fight the drug cartels.

A narco-state?

"My concerns are much more urgent now than they've been at any time in recent memory," U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in a telephone interview.

"It's ironic that we've sent tens of thousands of American citizens to the Middle East when we are in real danger of having Mexico become a narco-state. I don't think you're ever going to see a peace treaty between the cartels and the Mexican government, and it's going to end with one winning and one losing. At this point, we don't know who that's going to be."

Cornyn and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who waged an unsuccessful bid to unseat Perry in the March 2 primary, wrote a letter to President Barack Obama last week calling for a joint intelligence briefing on the violence in Mexico and its impact on U.S. security. The senators also asked Obama to accompany them on a visit to the border region as soon as possible.

"The spillover violence in Texas is real and it is escalating," the letter said.

That's not a universal view.

Matt Chandler, deputy press secretary for the Homeland Security Department, which includes the agencies that patrol the border and combat illegal immigration, says there has been no evidence of spillover violence from Mexico, an assessment shared by a number of border mayors.

"Drug-trafficking organizations are engaged in an armed violent struggle to control shrinking drug routes and territories," Chandler said. "They are targeting and killing rival cartel members, innocent civilians, police and senior government officials, among others. We are not, however, seeing any indications of similar violence here in the U.S."

El Paso Mayor John Cook, while commending the city's police chief for taking precautions, noted that El Paso is still ranked the second-safest big city in the United States, after Honolulu. "The average person walking around in El Paso, I don't think they're walking in fear," Cook said.

Nevertheless, sporadic incidents bearing the trademarks of gang violence lead some law enforcement officers to believe that violence is already on Texas' doorstep.

The slaying of a man who was kidnapped from his El Paso-area home last year appeared to be gang retaliation. His body was later found in Juarez, his hands cut off and placed on his chest. Transnational gangs that effectively serve as subcontractors for the powerful Mexican cartels could be embedded in up to 250 cities in Texas and elsewhere in the United States, according to law enforcement officials.

Ruthless cartels

"The most significant crime threat in the Western Hemisphere is Mexican cartels, and the most significant crime threat in Texas now is these transnational gangs," said Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety.

He was Perry's homeland security adviser before becoming the state's top law enforcement official last year. McCraw's department told Texas parents last year that the cartels and transnational gangs were recruiting youths in schools and communities, luring teenagers with the prospects of cars, money and notoriety.

McCraw, an FBI agent from 1983 to 2004, said the cartels have surpassed the notorious Colombian gangs in ruthlessness and power, posing a "domestic security threat to the government of Mexico."

Looking back on the evolution of Mexican drug operations since the early 1980s, McCraw said, "it's never been as bad as it is today."

State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, in a letter to Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and members of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, cited anecdotal reports that elements of gangs in Juarez may be moving their operations to El Paso's Mission Valley.

"For example, we have received numerous reports of gang members living in San Elizario, Socorro and Fabens, communities in the Mission Valley of El Paso," Shapleigh wrote.

Thousands of Mexicans fleeing Juarez, Nuevo Laredo and other border communities wracked by drug wars have raised fears that the violence will follow them. Victims of shootings in Mexico often cross the border to seek treatment at U.S. hospitals, says Don Reay, executive director of the Texas Border Sheriff's Coalition.

Doctors, nurses and staff members work in fear "because you don't know who is coming to finish the job," Reay said.

Contingency plan

McCraw's department coordinates Operation Border Star, a multiagency law enforcement initiative charged with carrying out the governor's contingency plan that was activated last week. Although enforcement officials decline to release specifics for security reasons, the "Tier Two" activation increased surveillance and patrol activity to show heightened visibility and a "preventive presence" to the drug gangs, McCraw said.

The activity, he said, sends the message, "The price of coming to Texas is too difficult because of all the patrol and activities that we're doing."

The activation is the third since the contingency plan was put in place a year ago. While there is no "fixed rule" for ordering an activation, McCraw said, an outbreak of activity close to the border -- such as a violent shootout or massive protests -- might put the plan into effect, creating a "hot loop" within the command-and-control network that links the law enforcement components.

McCraw noted that an activation is meant not only to react to a situation but also to deter an incursion from criminals.

Created from three predecessor operations dating to 2005, Border Star includes DPS troopers, Texas Rangers, the U.S. Border Patrol, and police and sheriff's departments. McCraw said that local enforcement agencies were notified throughout the day when the plan was activated but that county judges and mayors typically aren't consulted in advance.

"We need to do a better job of communicating to local elected officials what we are doing and why we are doing it" without revealing security aspects, he said.

After the activation was announced, Del Rio Mayor Efrain Valdez, chairman of the Texas Border Coalition, wrote Perry that excluding local political leaders from the process undermines needed cooperation in planning security strategy. Valdez complained that local officials learned about the plan "from the media, along with everyone else."

Some local officials also say the activation could create a false impression that the Texas side of the border is in turmoil, endangering tourism and scaring off businesses that may want to locate in border communities.

"To say that we're in a war zone down here is a wrong depiction of what's actually happening," said Monica Stewart, a McAllen businesswoman who heads the border coalition's immigration and border security committee.

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