I mentioned that I spoke to Patrick O'Burke about drug task forces earlier today - he's the Deputy Commander of DPS' Narcotics division. While I had him on the phone, I asked O'Burke about the Governor's joint operational intelligence centers that were announced earlier this year. Much to my surprise, he told me DPS Narcotics "didn't have anything to do" with any of that.
Understandably the deputy commander didn't feel comfortable baring his soul to an unemployed blogger, but he said he'd addressed these issues last Wednesday at a joint hearing of the State Affairs and Border & International Security Committees. So I went to look, and indeed he gave his "Border Threat Briefing" as the very last invited speaker on quite a long agenda.
Here's the link to an audio file of the committee hearing. O'Burke's testimony begins at the 9:34:45 mark (yes, the hearing lasted more than 10 hours!). Interesting stuff, and worth a listen for anyone who cares about the border or the drug war.
The most shocking news came at the end of his testimony in response to questioning, I couldn't tell by whom. There is no coordination at all between DPS and the Governor's Border Security Operations Center, O'Burke replied in response to a query. He said DPS' Narcotics division didn't know about some of the Governor's proposals until after they were operational. He knew nothing, he said, about any of their training, protocols, or after-operation procedures, and said he wasn't even aware if there were any - to his knowledge the sheriffs, he said, mostly "do whatever they want."
Uh ... accountability, anyone?
Anyway, back to the drug war, three major Mexican cartels operate along the Texas-Mexico border, said O'Burke - the Juarez, Gulf, and Sinaloa (or Alliance) cartels. The Sinaloa and Gulf cartels are feuding over Nuevo Laredo and I-35, he said, garnering that corridor a recent high profile. But other parts of the border actually account for greater traffic, he noted, particularly the Webb/Hidalgo County area.
(Grits' aside: Some observers have speculated that the real Gulf/Sinaloa battle is happening in preparation for a new network of highways connecting the Pacific Coast to commercial trade networks being constructed in central Mexico that will boost I-35's importance in the next few years.)
In 2005, said O'Burke, DPS entered into several cooperative agreements, some of them secret, with Mexican officials to analyze and coordinate border and narcotics enforcement on both sides of the river. Better intelligence as a result of these efforts had led to more effective targeting of investigative resources, he said, citing the statistic I mentioned this morning that their agency's narcotics arrests declined 40% while seizures doubled.
Even so, he said, with improved intelligence DPS now estimates that law enforcement seizes less than 10% of the drugs smuggled across the border. He said narcotics agents previously "hoped" they interdicted 10%, but they now know that's not true. Improved surveillance techniques by cartels (coupled, this blogger would add, the assistance of corrupt officers and government agents) makes high profile surge tactics like those sponsored by the Governor's various border operations of "limited" use.
Interdiction, he said, is most useful to collect intelligence, as a "window" into the cartels. But "dismantling and disrupting" the leadership was the goal, he said. The cartels considered losses to interdiction part of the "cost of doing business," he said.
Instead, O'Burke said it was a better tactic to target organizational structures. Working with DEA, DPS identified 12 "gatekeepers" for the cartels along the southwest border, 9 of which are in border towns on both sides of the Rio Grande. These are among the Texas Priority Organization Targets (T-POTs) identified by DPS for focusing their limited enforcement resources. But apparently they haven't talked to anyone at the Governor's "joint operational intelligence centers" about any of it!
I'm pretty close to saying I called this one. When the Governor's plan was announced I wrote:
My first question: If they're "joint," why are there 11 of them? How will these 11 distinct entities be coordinated, or are we setting ourselves up for more turf battles down the line?That seems to be what's happening. DPS is the state's primary statewide drug trafficking enforcement agency, and if they're not dialed in then the operation is neither very "joint" nor "intelligent." If they're not coordinating with DPS Narcotics, if they're not working with federal "deconfliction" centers, if they're not party to intelligence from secret agreements with the Mexican government, then these "joint operational intelligence centers" aren't really in the drug enforcement game on the border - that's just a fact.
And doesn't "joint operational intelligence center" sound like made up bureaucratese? That doesn't tell me who will be calling the shots on a day to day basis, or what are these guard troops' rules of engagement on the border. More to learn to understand what's really going on here.
Before the Lege sinks $100 million into the Governor's plan, perhaps they ought to consider making sure the money already sunk into border enforcement was spent wisely. I always considered that money pure election-year pork, and O'Burke's testimony confirms that Operations Wrangler/Rio Grande/Linebacker weren't ever integrated into the state's ongoing drug fighting strategies.
Those were the highlights, but the rest of O'Burke's testimony is full of remarkable stuff. I'd encourage anyone interested in what's going on at the front lines of Texas' drug war to give it a listen.