U.S.-Mexico Border Security - The Spillover Effect

Over the past several years, the United States has experienced increasing levels of crime related to drug trafficking – and, more specifically, to drug-related homicides along the 2,000-mile stretch of border between the United States and Mexico. Violent incidents on the U.S. side of the border that have been attributed to Mexico’s criminal gangs and cartels suggest that an escalation of “spillover violence” in that region may well be on the rise. Moreover, according to the BBC, as many as 70,000 people in Mexico have died in drug-related violence, and more than 26,000 have been reported as missing, since Mexico’s then-President Felipe Calderón declared war on drug cartels in 2006.

Crime Reports – Statistics & Limitations

Based on data compiled by the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego, homicides related to organized crime increased by almost 700 percent from 2007 (822) through 2012 (5,623) in the period between January and November in the six Mexican states that share the border with the United States – Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, and Tamaulipas. This concentration of crime along the border can be attributed in large part to the fact that the United States remains the largest consumer of the multi-billion dollar market of illegal drugs.

An unsettling report released to Congress in February 2013 by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) speculated that the seemingly endless drug war in Mexico will continue to escalate and ultimately cross the southwest border into the United States itself. The same report indicated that federal law enforcement agencies lack the advanced technology needed to track what might be considered “spillover” crime.

Currently, according to the GAO, the only means of measuring spillover violence comes from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program, which provides a standardized method to track crime levels in border counties. However, the UCR data is somewhat limited because it: (a) Simply provides a national view of crime that is based solely on the “voluntary” submission of a variety of statistics by city, county, and state law enforcement agencies; and, more importantly, (b) lacks the ability to link crimes associated with spillover crimes from Mexico – for example, cartel or organized crimes related to drug trafficking.

The UCR data, therefore, cannot be used or relied upon solely to determine to what extent crimes can reasonably be attributable to spillover from Mexico. The rationale here is that the UCR Program does not collect similar data on all types of crimes committed in the United States that have been associated with Mexican drug-trafficking organizations – particular types of kidnappings and/or home invasions, for example. Another understandable problem is that people who have been attacked or robbed in the course of unlawful activities may be reluctant – for fear of retaliation, deportation, or both – to report their own involvement to law enforcement. For that reason alone, many crimes connected to drug trafficking go unreported. When both the victim and the offender are in the United States illegally, that relevant information will seldom if ever show up on the UCR.

Defining “Spillover”

The “legalese” used presents yet another problem. Without a legal definition for “spillover violence,” it is difficult for many government agencies to track and analyze such statistics. As stated in Congressional testimony on 5 May 2010 at the U.S. Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, “Spillover violence entails deliberate, planned attacks by the cartels on U.S. assets, including civilian, military, or law enforcement officials, innocent U.S. citizens, or physical institutions such as government buildings, consulates, or businesses.” However, the testimony continued, “This definition does not include trafficker-on-trafficker violence, whether perpetrated in Mexico or the U.S.”

According to a 28 February 2013 Congressional Research Service Report, “There is no comprehensive, publicly available data that can definitively answer the question of whether there has been a significant spillover of drug trafficking related violence into the United States. Although anecdotal reports have been mixed, U.S. government officials maintain that there has not yet been a significant spillover.”

Not all members of Congress accept the administration’s position. Even so, it seems obvious that the key to determining whether spillover violence is occurring at the same rate, on the rise, or subsiding starts with accurately defining the term “spillover.” The difficulty facing the executive branch of government, therefore, is not only in determining how and when to define the problem, but also how to statistically track and classify the term spillover violence – all of which must be done before an acceptable resolution can be applied to the problem.

Conflicting Views From Up Close & Far Away

Many members of Congress, as well as law enforcement officials from state and local agencies along the nation’s southwest border, have long argued that drug-linked crimes are in fact “spilling” over the border from Mexico. Moreover, a 2011 Gallup/USA Today poll indicated that, at that time, 83 percent of Americans believe the rates of violence are in fact higher along the U.S. southwest border than they are anywhere else in the United States. Although U.S. federal law currently does not require gathering facts on spillover crime, two new bills – H.R. 2124 and H.R. 6368 – have been introduced in Congress in an attempt to require federal agencies to report all occurrences of cross-border violence.

Obama administration officials have frequently claimed that, thanks to a substantial upsurge in the federal law enforcement presence along the southwest border, crime rates have plummeted dramatically – and the U.S.-Mexico border is safer now than it had been in the past decade or so. White House officials base that putative decrease on the FBI’s UCR program. The UCR, though, includes data only on such crimes as murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault, but does not keep track of many of the crimes committed by drug traffickers – specifically including kidnapping, extortion, public corruption, drug and human smuggling, and trespassing.

Although the Obama administration claims that the southwest border is now “statistically” safer than before, officials in the bordering states have long warned of an invasion of Mexican cartels and gangs. In September 2011, retired U.S. Army General Barry McCaffrey and Major General Robert Scales contributed to a report, along with the Texas Department of Public Safety (which co-sponsored the report – with the Texas Department of Public Safety) cautioning that there has been an increase of violence along the southwest border region, specifically Texas, and suggesting that the Texas side of the border has now become a “combat zone.”

The same report described how Mexican cartels are demonstrating a clear intent to “move their operations into the United States” – and McCaffrey personally asserted that, “During the past two years, the southwestern United States has become increasingly threatened by the spread of Latin American and Mexican cartel organized crime.”

Assessing the Real Threat

The 2011 threat assessment carried out by the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Drug Intelligence Center indicates that: (a) The Mexican transnational criminal organizations now pose the greatest drug trafficking threat to the United States; and (b) The demand for illicit drugs in the United States partially drives this threat. Obviously, establishing a realistic timeline for measuring the fluctuations in drug trafficking-related violence over the past decade or so could be of vital importance in determining what must be done next.

Whatever else happens, though, there definitely is a major disagreement about the definition and classification of “spillover violence” and the extent of such violence. Nevertheless, there is still concern about what will happen if the current resources needed – manpower and funds – to combat the threats faced at the border are further restricted. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is just one agency being forced to reduce its operating budget as part of the ongoing “sequester.” Following, from a statement released by the CBP earlier this month, is how that agency views the possible new cuts that might be required:

“In order to address the more than half a billion in budget cuts imposed by sequestration, U.S. Customs and Border Protection must take significant budget reduction actions. CBP will continue to make every effort to minimize the sequester’s impact on public safety and national security, but expects that planned furlough of employees, along with reductions to overtime and hiring freeze will increase wait times at ports of entry, including international arrivals at airports, and reduce staffing between land ports of entry. Even with these cuts, though, individuals apprehended illegally crossing the southwest border will still be processed as usual. CBP continues to evaluate further impacts of sequestration on our operations. Because the length of the sequestration as well as funding levels through the end of the fiscal year are unknown at this time, it is difficult to project the impact of the reductions on individual employees or job occupations.”

Current & Future Concerns

Unfortunately, the CBP faces cuts of $595 million in 2013 under the automatic cuts previously projected to go into effect later this month. On 21 March, Congress passed a stop-gap resolution that postpones most of the sequester cutbacks until 30 September 2013. Nonetheless, the budget cuts projected earlier still include a reduction in border patrol agents and a cut in the funding allocated for the so-called “virtual fence” along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Obviously, the leadership at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is still very concerned about the effect of the cutbacks projected earlier. “I don’t think we can maintain the same level of security. … If you have 5,000 fewer Border Patrol agents, you have 5,000 fewer Border Patrol agents,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a Washington Times interview on 25 February 2013. The United States has already allocated significant resources to securing the U.S.-Mexico border, but the reductions still projected will undoubtedly create new concerns over whether, and how, southwest border violence and drug trafficking can be contained.

Clearly, the level of “spillover violence” into the United States as a result of the Mexican drug war is determined by: (a) The statistics that are used; (b) how the data gathered are interpreted; and, most significantly, (c) where someone lives – in Washington, D.C., or somewhere along the southwestern U.S. border. Despite reports issued in Washington, D.C., indicating that the southwest border is statistically safer now than in the recent past, many local residents as well as state and local law enforcement officials along the U.S.-Mexico border would strongly disagree.

Richard Schoeberl

Richard Schoeberl, Ph.D., has over 30 years of law enforcement experience, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He has served in a variety of positions throughout his career, ranging from a supervisory special agent at the FBI’s headquarters in Washington, DC, to unit chief of the International Terrorism Operations Section at the NCTC’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Before these organizations, he worked as a special agent investigating violent crime, human trafficking, international terrorism, and organized crime. Additionally, he has authorednumerousscholarly articles, serves as a peer mentor with the Police Executive Research Forum, is currently a professor of Criminology and Homeland Security at the University of Tennessee-Southern, and works with Hope for Justice – a global nonprofit combating human trafficking. 

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