Drug violence in northern Mexico has reached a level much worse than that which wracked Colombia two decades ago, and it’s affecting Texans on a daily basis, Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw said Tuesday.
Likening Mexican drug cartels to Islamic terrorist groups and the Italian Mafia, the state’s top homeland security official told lawmakers that he expects the situation along the border to deteriorate before it improves.
“Spillover is here,” he said Tuesday in Austin during a hearing of the Texas House Committee on Emergency Preparedness. “I’ve been working cartels since the 1980s, and there has never been a more significant threat.”
McCraw’s testimony comes amid escalating violence in hotspots like the northern border cities of Tamaulipas and an ongoing debate over whether that threat has already spilled over to the U.S.
While local law enforcement officials and the federal government argue that no significant incidents of “spillover violence” — a term they say should include “deliberate, planned attacks by the cartels” — have occurred thus far in Texas, McCraw disagreed.
“The state of Texas defines ‘spillover violence’ as Mexican cartel-related violence that occurs in Texas including aggravated assault, extortion, kidnapping, torture, rape and murder,” he said. “The victims of these crimes include illegal immigrants being smuggled into the United States, Mexican or U.S. citizens working with the cartels or their innocent family members, and those who are not associated in any way with the cartels or transnational gangs.”
This definition would include the dozens of home invasions and drug-related assaults and pursuits that occur across the Rio Grande Valley monthly, he said. But critics argue it casts too wide a net and serves only to frighten local residents by exaggerating the significance of crimes that have been occurring along the border for years.
State Rep. Aaron Peña, an Edinburg Democrat who chairs the committee, asked McCraw to present the state’s official definition of spillover on Tuesday because he felt the current discussion had gotten lost in semantics.
“The reality is, we have a problem,” Peña said. “If you call it spillover violence, you’re more likely to see a response. If I say to you that someone is raped, it’s going to have more of a political impact than if I say someone was assaulted.”
Just south of the Valley, the Gulf Cartel — which has long dominated smuggling routes through the region — is engaged in a battle for control with its former enforcement wing, the Zetas.
Even as McCraw stood before Peña’s committee Tuesday, armed clashes between cartel operatives and the Mexican military erupted in Reynosa and Rio Bravo, leaving at least three dead and dozens of makeshift roadblocks clogging traffic across the region.
“The Colombian national police were able to effect with the U.S. government effort a plan that did bring down the kingpins,” McCraw said, referring to efforts in the ‘80s that netted top cocaine traffickers like Pablo Escobar. “That hasn’t worked in Mexico. The beheadings, terrorist tactics — we didn’t see that in Colombia.”
During Tuesday’s hearing, Peña asked McCraw to develop specific recommendations to respond to the threat, so the lawmaker can take them to his colleagues when the Legislature reconvenes next year.
His committee is next set to hear testimony on border violence at a May hearing in McAllen.
“Things have changed drastically,” Peña said. “Mexicans who can afford to have moved to our community, businesses are concerned about investing there, and it threatens government institutions in Mexico. That’s a drastic change from what I remember Mexico to be.”