Monday, June 11, 2012

DPS on the Rio Grande: Border security, economic goals diverge

Texas has spent some $600 million on "border security" since 2007 on the ostensible grounds that the state must do the job if the feds won't. But one can point to little public safety payoff from the spending that's remotely worth such vast sums, and meanwhile more fundamental problems at the border go unaddressed.

The SA Express-News yesterday featured a pair of stories giving a good deal of detail about the day to day activities of DPS border security, which some in local law enforcement have criticized as redundant and taking away from the agency's historic mission:
The latter story offered this description of DPS' big-brotherish intelligence-gathering efforts related to border security:
The nerve center of the Texas Department of Public Safety's strategy for securing the Rio Grande is the Border Security Operations Center, an unassuming building tucked behind the DPS headquarters.

Opened in 2010, the BSOC is staffed by 18 people, including nine analysts and a Texas Ranger captain, as well as representatives from federal law enforcement agencies. They process tens of thousands of pieces of information from videos taken by helicopter pilots, images snapped by remote cameras, and reports from state troopers and local law enforcement about traffic stops.

The data is fed into TxMap system, a program that allows analysts in Austin and at seven joint operations intelligence centers along the border to visualize information such as pursuits, drug busts and where DPS assets are deployed.

The information is also distributed to local, state and federal agencies.
The main article focues in part on the culture and mission shift at DPS as a result of Texas' nine-figure border-security investment:
The Legislature has provided more than $600 million for border security since 2007, with most of the money given to DPS to target drug and human smugglers. The border operation today represents a small army, with specialized Ranger Reconnaissance Teams, new intelligence centers, patrol boats, helicopters and surveillance cameras watching for traffickers.

Even a high-altitude spy plane soon will be deployed.

It's a departure from DPS' traditional roles as highway patrolmen and a support service to local law enforcement agencies.
The so-called Ranger Reconnaissance Teams "have seized 78,000 pounds of drugs and arrested 76 people, according to DPS. They've also referred 1,103 illegal immigrants to federal agents." Some, though, questioned:
the need for DPS' involvement in border security when the Border Patrol is at an all-time high in personnel and funding. Meanwhile, they say, there is no indication that beefing up border security has hurt Mexico's drug cartels. 
“That money could perhaps be used for other purposes, as we already have Texas Parks and Wildlife” patrolling the river in boats, said Zapata County Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez. “Ranger Recon Teams? I don't really know what they've done as we're not privy to that information. DPS is doing the best job they can, but I do, however, feel that their way of working is totally different from local law enforcement.”
We also learn that, after canceling an earlier program to install dozens of cameras along the border, DPS is doubling down on the idea with "Operation Drawbridge," in which:
the department is installing 500 cameras along the border, part of an electronic monitoring program called Operation Drawbridge. It's an update of the much-criticized Texas Border Watch Program, a multimillion-dollar effort by the state to set up video cameras along the border. It was recently canceled after only a few dozen cameras were put in place over more than three years and unimpressive results.
When a Drawbridge camera is triggered, it sends an image to DPS' Border Security Operations Center in Austin. If it shows something of interest — immigrants or drug mules — the image is saved and added to the stream of information DPS shares with other agencies.
Such "border security" efforts, though, are dealing with symptoms - in a particularly ham-handed way, no less - that can't mitigate more fundamental trends at the border exemplified in another recent story (June 1) from the Express-News business section, "Bill aimed at reducing wait times at the border." Give it a quick read; in the big picture, the problem Sen. John Cornyn aims to address in that story is more critical to border security than any law-enforcement angle.

Here's the bottom-line dynamic causing this now-chronic situation (and Grits has been discussing these issues for years): US trade with Asia is at an all-time high and growing each year at a massive rate, but the United States is building no new Pacific port capacity for reasons related to historic land use, tourism, and environmental concerns. Meanwhile, Mexico is constructing a series of super ports on its western coast, along with a massive series of highways funneling cargo mainly toward Nuevo Laredo (read: I-35) and the various bridges crossing into Texas.

The volume of legitimate north-bound traffic is so vast that rigorously searching all of it for drugs and contraband is a fantasy, particularly when, as reported in the story, the Customs and Border Protection agency is 6,000 agents short. DPS is spending all this money to police the areas in between the checkpoints, which is also mainly where the Border Patrol beefed up during its massive recent hiring binge. But the largest volume of contraband always has and always will come over the international bridges right past federal (and now state) officials because the volume is simply too high to catch all of it. Moreover, profit margins on wholesale drugs are high enough to incur losses without undermining their business model.

Meanwhile, the existence of maquiladora plants operated by US companies on the Mexican side of the river - not to mention increasing export volumes as the urban, Mexican middle class has expanded post-NAFTA - mean southbound commercial traffic is growing as well. These trends are not reversing, and even if they did (perhaps in some nativist, "shut down the border" fantasy), Texas' economy would be among those harmed the most.

Seldom discussed, but critically, anti-contraband measures contribute tremendously to backed up northbound traffic at international bridges, exacerbating the infrastructure shortcomings Sen. Cornyn and border officials lamented in the June 1st story. But media and policymakers never seem to connect the dots. Given the enormous expense and so few tangible public safety benefits, Grits considers Texas' border security spending almost entirely wasted. This is a federal issue and the main thing the feds need to do is dramatically increase capacity - both through expanded infrastructure and customs staffing - to process vastly more legitimate border traffic in both directions.


Anonymous said...

We have helicopters to watch them cross the border and now we will have a high-altitude spy plane to watch them freely cross. Sounds voyeuristic.

A Texas PO said...

Wow. That $600M has resulted in the arrest of 76 people. That's a cost of $7,894,736.84 per arrestee. If any other law enforcement agency had those kinds of numbers, there'd be effigies burning all across this state. Wow.

Anonymous said...

How DPS manages to pull this crap off is beyond me. The legislature should dissolve DPS and create a state police. It would be the first in history for Texas.

Anonymous said...

Texas Agriculture Commissioner and self appointed Texas Border Czar Todd Staples recently made a shocking press release in which he applauds DPS for success in Operation Drawbridge, it seems that remote covert cameras placed on ranches near the border and monitored by the Fusion Center provided his website with undeniable photographic proof that illegal aliens are entering the United States from Mexico. OH MY GOD! HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN GOING ON! Good to know that the Texas Department of Agriculture is large and in charge when it comes to border security, especially since Jay Kimbrough is still on loan to TYC. The Governor should consider placing the Texas Navy and a Ranger Frontier Battalion at the disposal of the Commissioner Staples.