Border Patrol Director of Media Relations Lloyd Easterling confirmed this week--as I first reported in my column yesterday--that his agency is planning for a net decrease of 384 agents on the U.S.-Mexico border in fiscal 2010, which begins on October 1.
A Department of Homeland Security annual performance review updated by the Obama administration on May 7 said the Border Patrol “plans to move several hundred Agents from the Southwest Border to the Northern Border to meet the FY 2010 staffing requirements, with only a small increase in new agents for the Southwest Border in the same year.”
Easterling said on Tuesday that in fiscal 2009, 17,399 Border Patrol agents have been deployed on the U.S.-Mexico border. In fiscal year 2010, the Border Patrol plans to decrease that by 384 agents, leaving 17,015 deployed along the Mexican frontier. At the same time, the number of Border Patrol agents deployed on the U.S.-Canada border will be increased by 414, from a fiscal 2009 total of 1,798 agents to a fiscal 2010 total of 2,212.
The Border Patrol is responsible for securing a total of 8,607 miles of border, including the U.S.-Mexico border, the U.S.-Canada border from Washington state to Maine, and sectors of coastline in the Gulf of Mexico, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Each year, the Border Patrol sets a goal for “border miles under effective control (including certain coastal sectors).” “Effective control,” as defined by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, means that when the Border Patrol detects an illegal border crosser in a particular area of the border the agency can be expected to succeed in apprehending that person.
In the May 7 update of its performance review, DHS said the Border Patrol’s goal for fiscal 2009 was to have 815 of the 8,607 miles of border for which the agency is responsible under “effective control.” The review also said the Border Patrol’s goal for fiscal 2010 was to again have 815 miles of border under “effective control,” meaning DHS was not planning to secure a single additional mile of border in the coming year.
However, Acting Deputy Assistant Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Todd Owen told a House committee in July that the Border Patrol already had 894 miles of border under effective control as of May 31 of this year. These 894 miles, Owen said, included 697 miles on the Mexican border, 32 miles on the Canadian border and 165 miles in the coastal sectors.
Easterling said this week that as of now the Border Patrol still has the same 894 miles of border under effective control that it had under effective control as of May 31. He also said the agency would not relinquish control of any of these miles in the coming year. After the beginning of the new fiscal year, he said, the Border Patrol would reevaluate the situation and set a new goal for border miles under “effective control” for 2010 that would at least equal, and might exceed, the 894 miles currently under effective control.
“The intention is to take back the border incrementally, and make gains that we can keep,” Easterling said. “We do not intend, nor will we give back, miles that we have gained control over.”
Easterling said the Border Patrol would be able to maintain the current number of miles under effective control on the Mexico border with fewer agents deployed there thanks to “force multipliers,” including new fencing, roads and other infrastructure that has been built in recent years. He also cited the assistance the Border Patrol receives from local police and sheriffs departments and community watch groups.
But even if the Border Patrol is able to maintain or marginally improve on the current level of security on the U.S.-Mexico border, most of the border will remain effectively open to smuggling both contraband and persons.
The entire U.S.-Mexico border is 1,954 miles long, according to the International Boundary and Water Commission. While 697 of those miles are now under “effective control,” according to the Border Patrol, 1,257 miles are not under “effective control.”
Reports from other government agencies paint a vivid picture of the massive drug and alien smuggling that takes place in these uncontrolled expanses and the national security problem created by unsecured border lands.
Each year, the Justice Department’s National Drug Intelligence Center produces “drug market analyses” for each of 32 regions of the country that the NDIC describes as “high intensity drug trafficking areas.” Five of these areas sit along the U.S.-Mexico border. These include the California border region, Arizona, New Mexico, West Texas and South Texas. The latest reports, released in March and April of this year, use candid language in portraying the U.S.-Mexican frontier as wide open to drug smuggling and even vulnerable to penetration by potential terrorists.
The California-Mexico border, the NDIC said, was “easily breached” on both foot and in vehicles.
“The vast border area presents innumerable remote crossing points that traffickers exploit to smuggle illicit drugs, primarily marijuana, into the country from Mexico,” said NDIC. “These areas are easily breached by traffickers on foot, in private vehicles, or in all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) as they smuggle drugs between POEs [ports of entry], particularly the mountainous areas in eastern San Diego County and the desert and sand dune areas in Imperial County.”
Arizona’s border was judged to be open not only to drug smugglers but also aliens with “extensive criminal records” and from “special interest countries,” which are defined as “countries that could export individuals who could bring harm to the United States through terrorism.”
“Some criminal organizations smuggle aliens and gang members into the United States,” said NDIC’s report on Arizona. “These particular individuals typically have extensive criminal records and pose a threat, not only to the Arizona HIDTA [high intensity drug trafficking area] region but also to communities throughout the United States. Alien smuggling organizations reportedly also smuggle aliens from countries other than Mexico, including special-interest countries.”
“Special-interest countries are those designated by the intelligence community as countries that could export individuals who could bring harm to the United States through terrorism,” said the NDIC report.
The NDIC described the Arizona-Mexico border as “largely underprotected” in the areas between official ports of entry.
“Large amounts of illicit drugs are smuggled into the area from Mexico, and bulk cash is transported from the area into Mexico,” said NDIC. “These trafficking activities are facilitated by several factors unique to the region, including the continuing economic and population growth in Arizona’s two primary drug markets (Phoenix and Tucson), the highways that connect major metropolitan areas in Arizona with major illicit drug source areas in Mexico, and a remote, largely underprotected border area between Arizona’s ports of entry (POEs).
“Vast stretches of remote, sparsely populated border areas are located within the HIDTA region; these areas are especially conducive to large-scale drug smuggling,” said NDIC. “By the end of January 2009, 108 miles of the 262-mile shared border between Arizona and Mexico will have some type of fencing. However, few physical barriers exist in border areas between POEs, particularly in the West Desert area of the U.S. Border Patrol (USBP) Tucson Sector, to impede drug traffickers, chiefly Mexican DTOs, from smuggling illicit drug shipments into the United States from Mexico.”
Part of the New Mexico border was described as “an ideal smuggling corridor.”
“Southwestern New Mexico—specifically Hidalgo, Luna, and Dona Ana Counties—shares a 180-mile border with Mexico,” said NDIC. “More than half the length of this border is desolate public land that contains innumerable footpaths, roads, and trails. Additionally, many ranches are located along the border. These factors and minimal law enforcement coverage make the area an ideal smuggling corridor for drugs and other illicit goods and services— primarily alien smuggling into the United States and weapons and bulk cash smuggling into Mexico. Mexican DTOs smuggle multihundred-kilogram quantities of illicit drugs through this portion of the HIDTA region annually.”
Like the California border, the South Texas border is also “easily breached,” according to the NDIC.
“The combination of vast stretches of remote, sparsely populated land and extensive crossborder economic activity at designated ports of entry (POEs) creates an environment conducive to large-scale drug smuggling,” said NDIC. “Few physical barriers exist between POEs to impede drug traffickers, particularly Mexican DTOs, from smuggling illicit drug shipments into the United States from Mexico. Along many areas of the U.S.-Mexico border in South Texas, the Rio Grande River can be easily breached by smugglers on foot or in vehicles, enabling Mexican DTOs to smuggle multikilogram quantities of illicit drugs, primarily marijuana and cocaine, into the United States.”
In the West Texas sector, the NDIC again raised the possibility that terrorists could exploit the border to enter the country.
“Moreover, the region’s location along the U.S.-Mexico border poses national security and law enforcement issues for the region, such as alien smuggling, weapons transportation, and terrorist entry into the United States through and between ports of entry,” said NDIC.
While the U.S. government may be failing to exert effective control over most of the border, identical language in the NDIC reports for Arizona and West Texas said that drug trafficking organizations have set up “gatekeeper” operations that control smuggling into the U.S. and levy taxes on the smugglers they let through.
“Gatekeepers regulate the drug flow from Mexico across the U.S.-Mexico border into the United States by controlling drug smugglers’ access to areas along the border,” said the Arizona and West Texas NDIC reports. “Gatekeepers collect ‘taxes’ from smugglers on all illicit shipments that are moved through these areas, including drugs and illegal aliens. The taxes are generally paid to the DTO that controls the area; the DTO then launders the tax proceeds. Gatekeepers sometimes resort to extortion, intimidation, and acts of violence to collect taxes from smugglers. Gatekeepers also reportedly bribe corrupt Mexican police and military personnel in order to ensure that smuggling activities occur without interruption.”
“Gatekeepers generally operate at the behest of a Mexican drug trafficking organization (DTO) and enforce the will of the organization through bribery, intimidation, extortion, beatings, and murder,” said the reports.
A Government Accountability Office report released on August 31 pointed out that the Border Patrol’s top priority is to stop terrorists and weapons of mass destruction from entering the United States and revealed that three person’s “linked to terrorism” and hundreds of aliens from “special interest countries” were intercepted at Border Patrol checkpoints in fiscal 2008. These checkpoints, which act as a final line of defense for the U.S. border, are typically set up on highways 25 to 100 miles north of the Mexican border.
“CBP reported that in fiscal year 2008, there were three individuals encountered by the Border Patrol at southwest border checkpoints who were identified as persons linked to terrorism,” said GAO.
“In addition, the Border Patrol reported that in fiscal year 2008 checkpoints encountered 530 aliens from special interest countries, which are countries the Department of State has determined to represent a potential terrorist threat to the United States,” said GAO. “While people from these countries may not have any ties to illegal or terrorist activities, Border Patrol agents detain aliens from special interest countries if they are in the United States illegally and Border Patrol agents report these encounters to the local Sector Intelligence Agent, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Joint Terrorism Task Force, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Office of Investigations, and the CBP National Targeting Center.”
The GAO also said one illegal alien detained in West Texas had come from Iran.
“For example,” said GAO, “according to a Border Patrol official in the El Paso sector, a checkpoint stopped a vehicle and questioned its three Iranian occupants, determining that one of those occupants was in the United States illegally. The individual was detained and turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for further questioning.”
There has been much discussion in the past week about whether President Barack Obama will heed the advice of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, to increase the U.S. troop deployment there. The administration, however, has already decided to decrease by 384 the Border Patrol agents deployed on our own southern frontier.