Aug 7, 2014

Texas Bolsters Border Patrol With Its Own

New York Times:  Along the Rio Grande here, the suspected smugglers trying to slip into the United States have certainly noticed their adversaries on the water: burly commandos in black-and-white boats mounted with .30-caliber machine guns and bulletproof shields. The patches on the officers’ camouflage fatigues identify them not as federal Border Patrol agents but as another breed of law enforcement entirely.

Texas game wardens.

Pool photo by Eric Gay
A team of them — whose routine duties include investigating fishing tournament cheaters and making arrests for B.U.I., or boating under the influence — patrol the Rio Grande, pulling smuggling suspects from the river and dodging rocks thrown from the Mexican side. Members of the Texas Rangers have also traded in their familiar white cowboy hats for camouflage so they can blend into the brush on covert nighttime operations.

On the border, Texas uses helicopters with infrared technology. It monitors motion-detecting cameras it installed on private ranches. And rather than rely on federal high-altitude surveillance airplanes, Texas bought one of its own, for $7.4 million.

Gov. Rick Perry’s recent announcement that he was deploying 1,000 National Guard troops to the border has generated widespread attention. But it was only the latest step in a broader, decade-long strategy by Mr. Perry and other Republican leaders to patch together Texas’ own version of the Border Patrol on its 1,200-mile border with Mexico.

Mr. Perry and state officials defend the show of force as a costly but necessary effort to stop the smuggling of people and drugs into Texas and to prevent what they call “criminal aliens” from filling up Texas jails unrelated to their immigration status. They say it has resulted in tens of thousands of arrests and tens of millions of dollars of drug seizures.

But their operations have scores of detractors, including some officials in border communities, who say the threat posed by illegal immigrants and the extent of South Texas crime have been exaggerated, the programs have had decidedly mixed results and that patrolling the border is the federal government’s job, not the state’s.

“It’s not something the federal government has asked him to do,” said Veronica Escobar, El Paso’s county judge. “It is such a waste of taxpayer resources, especially when so many fundamental needs are underfunded by the very state leadership that proposes and promotes this waste.”

Richard H. Garcia, the mayor of the City of Edinburg in the Rio Grande Valley, questioned the need for the National Guard, saying that crime had decreased by 12 percent in his city last year. “The perception is being raised that we’re a war zone here, and that’s the furthest from the truth,” he said.

Texas has spent $500 million on border security since 2005. That is far in excess of what other states that share a border with Mexico — California, Arizona or New Mexico — have spent, though Texas officials note that the Texas border with Mexico is larger than the borders in those three states combined. And no other state has a Border Security Operations Center, which Texas opened in Austin to analyze, map and share border-related intelligence with local, state and federal agencies.

In 2010, then-Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico ordered a few dozen troops to his state’s border after the killing of an Arizona rancher, but he sees no comparison with what Mr. Perry has done in Texas.

“It was limited and it was temporary,” Mr. Richardson, a Democrat, said of his own 2010 deployment. “I think border states have to be careful that they don’t over-militarize the border.”

He added: “I worked with Governor Perry on border issues. I just think he’s gone a bit too far.”

The $500 million comes with a caveat. Last month, Mr. Perry told a congressional committee that Texas should be reimbursed by the federal government for its border security expenditures dating from the presidency of Mr. Perry’s predecessor, George W. Bush.

“There can be no national security without border security,” said Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman for Mr. Perry. “And while Texas taxpayers should not have to bear the burden of fulfilling the federal government’s responsibility to secure the border, we cannot wait for action while our border remains porous and communities are at risk.”

The game wardens have seen high-risk action on their patrols on the border. One was recently struck by a rock, and another was assaulted as he fought with a smuggler resisting arrest. One June morning in 2011 near Mission, drug smugglers trying to protect a raft loaded with marijuana threw rocks and fired up to six gunshots at officers. The game wardens, Texas Rangers and Border Patrol agents answered with a barrage of gunfire, discharging 300 rounds.

Their response was defended by Texas officials, who said the officers fired in self-defense. Game wardens — who carry guns and badges as fully commissioned state peace officers and are overseen by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department — have no authority to enforce federal immigration laws on the border. They instead make arrests for state crimes, like human trafficking.

The Texas authorities work closely with the Border Patrol, coordinating joint operations and sharing information. In January 2007, when Mr. Perry ordered 600 National Guard troops to the border — his first state-initiated border deployment — some of the soldiers were paired with Border Patrol agents and local police officers.

But Texas operates independently from federal officials, too, often spotting and responding to suspicious activity before the Border Patrol. Border Patrol officials did not respond to requests for comment about Texas’ operations. But there have been signs that federal officials in Washington disagree with some of Mr. Perry’s proposals and rhetoric. Mr. Perry’s repeated requests in 2009 for federal officials to put 1,000 National Guard troops on the border to help curb what he called drug-related “spillover violence” were never approved.

Officials with the state’s top law enforcement agency, the Department of Public Safety, say dozens of killings, assaults, shootings and kidnappings in Texas have been directly related to Mexican drug cartels. A 2011 report by two retired Army generals — an assessment that cost Texas $80,000 — found that Texans were being threatened by a “narco-terrorist military-style campaign being waged against them” by the cartels.

Mr. Perry’s border operations have a military-style tone in their tactics and equipment, with football-themed names like Operation Linebacker and Operation Strong Safety. Texas has paid millions of dollars to a private military contractor founded by the retired Army general John N. Abrams to help develop its border-security strategies. Before his 2007 National Guard deployment, known as Operation Wrangler, Mr. Perry said the troops would be forming “12 armed security platoons.”

The governor and Texas officials have said the new deployment of troops has little to do with the influx of young Central American immigrants flooding the border and will instead mirror previous border missions focused on crime and smuggling. Mr. Perry, who is considering another presidential run in 2016, has denied that his decision to put troops on the border was motivated by his political ambitions.

“My citizens’ safety is what is foremost here,” Mr. Perry said on CNN on Sunday.

Texas spares no expense. The Pilatus surveillance airplane Texas bought in 2012 came loaded with a $1 million thermal imaging system and $58,000 night vision goggles. Six boats used by state troopers and game wardens cost $3.4 million. The National Guard deployment will cost Texas $60 million if it lasts five months.

In a fiscally conservative state, whose leaders espouse a low-tax, low-spend mantra, the $500 million spent on border security has become an exception to the rule.

“It’s a very bittersweet situation,” said State Representative Dennis Bonnen, the Republican chairman of a House committee studying the fiscal impact of border operations. “It’s a clear federal responsibility, but they choose to not do the job, so we have no choice but to fill the holes.”

Mr. Perry and other state officials said the effort had made Texans safer. The use of state police helicopters and the surveillance airplane on the border alone have been responsible for more than 13,000 arrests, $87 million worth of drug seizures and the rescue of 137 people, state officials said.

But controversies have at times overshadowed successes. In 2012, a state officer in a helicopter, trying to shoot the tires of a pickup truck suspected of carrying drugs, killed two unarmed illegal immigrants hiding in the vehicle.

Before installing low-cost motion-detecting cameras, Texas spent millions of dollars on a more advanced video-camera system that allowed people to watch the live footage on the Internet and report suspicious activity. Known as Texas Border Watch, it resulted in few apprehensions. The Texas Tribune found in 2010 that the program led to a total of 26 arrests, which worked out to about $153,800 per arrest.

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